Mourning the genial broadcasting legend who seemed indomitable
Underneath the effortless charm lurked an intellectual, well versed and supremely generous of spirit, writes Hilary A White
There are pillars in all our rear-view mirrors. Things that make up the vista of our lives and provide cultural cornerstones when adult life shifts underfoot. When they're suddenly not there, it's felt, sometimes deeply. Look at David Bowie and how his death caused middle-aged men to weep for teenage years of escapism and the unpleasant idea that a formative totem was now gone from the existential diorama.
The nostalgic reeling returned last week with the loss of Terry Wogan, the Limerick-born broadcasting aristocrat who'd always seemed indelible and death-proof. It'd be disingenuous to say I was principally mourning the loss of a very nice man I'd once met, but that was part of it. It was more that a presence over my 35 years, ubiquitous if not always apparent, had extinguished. A minor fracture in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, but a fracture none the less.
Growing up in the 1980s meant two things in our house - Star Wars and Wogan. I arrived into the world and they were just there. Neither needed to be introduced, understood or contemplated. They were family, furniture and soundtrack, rolled into one. They just were. In hindsight, so much of that decade now seems disposable. Not, however, the recently revived space opera. And not the unforced, suave, irreverent Irishy-Englishy host with the toothy grin on TV every Saturday night.
When I got to interview him at his home on a cloudless July day in 2011, the then-73-year-old was exactly as I'd always imagined, if slightly less robust. He welcomed me into the Maidenhead pile he shared with wife Helen like an old friend. It was surprising, yet not. We settled into chairs out in his sweeping back garden. Within five minutes, it had already become exactly the kind of experience that made me become a journalist in the first place. He was interesting and interested, candid, widely versed and supremely generous of spirit. There was no stopwatch, no "off-limits" preciousness. The chat - and that was very much the cadence he sought - was that of a friendly, reflective man in the winter of his years who was grateful for a good chinwag.
"Hilarious" is the first word I find myself using when people ask what he was like. Wogan had a buoyant, breezy humour that was effortless but made me double over with laughter and lose my line of questioning a few times over those couple of hours. It was a twinkle in the eye, a flamboyant turn of language or some delightfully spry confection on one of his favourite sources of amusement - himself.
"God help us," he quipped when I told him I'd read Mustn't Grumble (his laugh-out-loud 2006 biography). "I'm a tremendously lazy person," he cheerily sighed. "I've never knocked on anybody's door looking for a job. Anything that's difficult for me, I just don't do. It just shows you how deeply trivial a person I am that I only do stuff that comes easily to me!"
He didn't want anybody, he chuckled, to call him 'Sir Terry' but liked the idea of throwing any letters addressed to 'Mr Terry Wogan' straight into the wastepaper basket. During a brief aside about his former BBC radio colleagues, he explained that he mostly only saw the back of Ken Bruce's head in the adjacent studio. "The back of Ken Bruce's head is much like the front of his head," he then slipped in, parenthetically. I nearly spat coffee over my notebook.
What I quickly learned was Wogan only poked fun at people he liked a lot, and this tonality was what ultimately saw him gain such vast purchase on UK public consciousness.
"I came over here [to England] and found there was far too much sycophancy going on," he mock scowled.
"People on the radio saying things like 'we love your show' etc. And I thought: 'I can't handle that because that's not the way friends behave.' Friends are more likely to tell you you've got a spot on your nose or you dress like the Pope's mother."
When he referred to Gay Byrne, his RTE mucker of yore, as a "poor old soul", the mischief was edged with affection.
And yet Wogan would have been useless if he were just some wisecracking loafer who was a conduit for kid-acting on the airwaves.
Beneath the lightning wit, the massaging, sing-song purr and the unreconstructed geniality lurked an intellectual. It fell all about him that afternoon in the recesses between punchlines, trinkets of wisdom and invention, literacy and an acute recall that are unquestionably part of the package. I still dwell on things he said.
Living overseas, Wogan had a clarity of perspective on Ireland.
The discussion turned to the landmark state visit of Queen Elizabeth just weeks previously. We'd patted ourselves on the back after her departure. Hadn't we done well, we told ourselves. Wogan had a different take on it.
"Was I proud of Ireland?" he wondered. "Well, I expected Ireland to rise to the occasion. I felt more proud of the Queen, really. She is a very nice woman. She's a remarkable woman . . . And why wouldn't the Irish behave well? Why don't we expect ourselves to behave well? Why do we think we're the only ones that history ever happened to? How would we feel if we were Poles or Jews? I mean, come on!"
He was proud, though. You could see it still. He delighted in telling me he was "as Irish as the next man" and therefore got emotional "about all sorts of things". It was clear he'd spent a lot of time considering the boom and bust, and had actively jumped in to defend his native land when onlookers in the UK asked "why didn't the Irish realise this or that". He called his fellow countrymen "resilient", "intelligent", "noble" and "probably a much better educated population than Britain". "Corinthian" was how he described the respectful silences placekickers get from Irish rugby fans. "The principle of sportsmanship is stronger in Ireland than in England, in my opinion. Getting up and shaking hands with your opponent after a hard game - it's true of nearly everything the Irish do."
Sadly, it didn't mean Ireland always afforded him quite the same regard. Before arriving back to Dublin in 2005 to receive a People of the Year Award, voices of idiocy questioned his Irishness on Liveline.
"It's nice to know the Irish haven't forgotten me," Wogan said during his acceptance speech. Did he really fear he'd been discarded?.
"I thought about that because it was nice and an enormous surprise. I have the award on my mantelpiece. But why wouldn't they have forgotten about me? I'm not there - forgotten but not gone!" he chortled, slightly evasively.
Looking back now, there is a sense that the accolades, lifetime honours and knighthoods sat uneasily with Terry Wogan. He laughed that day about how everyone reaches a certain point where people "confuse longevity with merit". "If you cling to the refuge long enough, people will begin to think you must have some quality. . . No, it's just that he's not dead yet!"
He had no real answer to the question of how he'd like to be remembered. All he could say was he hadn't thought about it because he still hadn't any "intimations of mortality". He'd probably roll his eyes at the countless tributes and hagiographies last week.
He'd been godless ever since losing first daughter Vanessa in 1966, weeks after her birth. This wasn't public knowledge when we met but listening back to the interview, it explains why he found it "doubly worrying" when his grandchildren were ill. The atheism and the playfulness remained to the end, according to close friend Fr Brian D'Arcy. "You'd better say a few prayers if you have any influence up there, if there's anyone up there," he reportedly said to D'Arcy on their final meeting.
So much sheer spirit. It's why we will probably continue to talk about him. That "sunny" disposition that granted him a passport to affections. That refusal to take himself too seriously when he easily could have. "Nobody's going to top that act," Ruby Wax said during the week. She's so right because it wasn't an act.
"I mean I've just had the most extraordinary, pleasant life," he gently laughed that day. "And now I'm, as it were, staggering towards the end of it but there you are."