Wednesday 28 September 2016

Thank you, Terry, for being a friend to millions

Published 07/02/2016 | 02:30

Terry Wogan. Photo: PA
Terry Wogan. Photo: PA

It was someone on Twitter who summed it up best, after news of Terry Wogan's death had broken: "Ah God, not another one gone."

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It's been some month for celebrity deaths. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Glenn Frey, Natalie Cole and more. And now, possibly the most famous Irishman in the UK.

Tributes, memories and expressions of sympathy flooded the airwaves, but this time with a significant difference. The medium was mourning one of its own.

We probably didn't appreciate fully just how hugely successful Wogan was in Britain. Most of us, if pushed to recall his greatest broadcasting triumphs, would likely mention the telly chat-show or his wry commentary on Eurovision for BBC TV. But it was in radio that the Limerick man really went stratospheric.

Wake Up to Wogan, which ran on BBC Radio 2 until 2009, was colossal in terms of audience figures. His peak, in 2005, saw more than eight million listeners tuning in. (Ever-ready to poke fun at himself - and aware of the absurdity of being paid to talk entertaining nonsense to millions of people - he joked at the time: "Hang on. There's 60 million people in the country, what are the other 52 million listening to?") Eight million! That's 20 times the audience of Morning Ireland, long-standing heavyweight champion of Irish radio. A much larger population, granted, but still - it explains why Wogan's death was greeted not only as the sad passing of an individual man, but the loss of a national British icon.

The Ryan Tubridy Show (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 9am) re-ran an interview they'd done with Wogan just last September. At the time, I found it, and him, to be witty, self-deprecating and charming. Listening back this week, I still thought that.

And it reminded me of one of the best things about Wogan: how he wore the mantle of dual-nationality so lightly. There was no embittered chippiness about Ireland, and on the other hand, no childish sniping at the country that had given him a home and a career.

Wogan was Irish-born, also British by law, and proud of both, happy with both. You got the impression he didn't take any of it, or himself, too seriously - quite right, too.

Wogan, I noted then and do so now, had attained an almost-perfect balance between his Irish and English identities. He was grateful of the good life he'd made in the UK, and clearly loved the country. But he wasn't slavish about it; no sense of the 'whipped cur' grovelling at his master's table. A sound man, a Limerick native who spoke fondly of his roots without banging a nationalist drum, and reconciled that with the fact that he'd lived and worked in another country for most of his life.

On The Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, Mon-Fri 10am), the host introduced a fond farewell by describing Terry as "unshakable, unflappable, unsinkable". The nearest thing to an Irish version of David Niven, I suppose, and no finer compliment can be paid to any man.

Pat and Brendan Balfe - a bit of a radio legend himself, in fairness - knocked great fun, while stirring bittersweet feelings, out of recounting Wogan's sense of humour and love of practical jokes. He had burned Brendan's notes when the latter was about to do his first on-air continuity job… and he, in turn, burned Pat's notes in similar fashion.

Terry's former radio home delivered a two-hour Terry Wogan Special (BBC Radio 2, Sun 9am), filled with his favourite songs, contributions from old pals like the always-amiable Fr Brian D'Arcy, and a raft of listener texts and emails. The sheer affection in which he was held by the British public was something to behold.

Fr Brian also popped up on Liveline (Radio 1, Mon-Fri 1.45pm) to pay tribute to his old compadre, "just the most lovely, loyal friend; a great intellect, great broadcaster".

The BBC2 show had played the clip - also played on numerous other programmes - of Wogan signing off Wake Up to Wogan in December 2009. You could hear the choke in his voice as he said: "When you tell me how important I've been in your lives, it's been very moving. You've been every bit as important in mine. Thank you for being my friend."

Thanks yourself, Terry.

Finally, a quick mention - appropriately enough, from Wogan's hometown - of Master Galligan (Limerick Live95, Sun 7am). It's unusual enough for local stations, particularly the pop music-driven ones like Live95, to feature documentaries, but this was pretty good stuff, telling a rather remarkable story. Producer Ciarán Ryan delved into the life of Limerick man Des Galligan, who's been practising martial arts since his 1970s adolescence (yes, Bruce Lee was an influence). Not only has he introduced a form of Korean karate to Ireland and been an inspirational force for promoting it, he's actually trained with Chuck Norris. Yes, the Chuck Norris.

There's much more besides, and the whole thing can be heard as a podcast on www.live95fm.ie.

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