Terry Wogan felt he had no choice but leave Ireland - yet, once abroad, being Irish proved pivotal to his success
Published 31/01/2016 | 11:13
Terry Wogan made being on television seem the best fun in the world.
The Limerick broadcaster, who has passed away aged 77, was endlessly upbeat and jovial, with apparently limitless reserves of twinkle-eyed charm. He put others at ease because he always appeared so at ease with himself.
Wogan was, at the peak of his fame in the 80s, the chat show host to rule them all. Celebrities invited to perch on his couch inevitably found him irresistible – a garrulous schmoozer they couldn't help opening up to. In his later years, meanwhile, he slipped comfortably into the role of British broadcasting elder-statesman, revelling in his pipe and slippers image and fans who proudly described themselves as "Togs" – "Terry's Older Geezers and Gals".
Through it all, he gave the impression of being sagely in on the joke – refusing to take himself too seriously and keeping his head even on those rare occasions when celebs wanted to smack him across it.
He struck the right balance of empathy and exasperation interviewing a four-sheets-to-the-wind George Best on Wogan in 1990 and remained similarly dignified during a testy tete-a-tete with David Bowie. "I nearly hit him," the presenter would recall. "For some reason best known to him he came on the show unwilling to talk.''
In Ireland our relationship with Wogan is by necessity complicated. He was arguably one of the earliest example of an Irish person achieving visible success abroad. True, Irish people had for centuries made something of themselves upon leaving the old country. But Wogan was beamed into our living rooms every evening. This struck us as doubly remarkable given that the Troubles were ongoing and the stereotyping of Irish people in the UK had, in certain circles, moved from condescending to downright nasty.
Over time, it is true, his relationship with Ireland took on a schmaltzy hue. Returning here for the three-part 2011 documentary Terry Wogan's Ireland he was as misty-eyed as any Irish American and the series' head-patting tone rightly provoked much eye-rolling. “There are Irish pubs all over the world,” he gushed as tin whistles blared. “But they aren’t Irish.”
Irishness was, of course, key to his charm. He may have famously stated that he felt more at home amongst the "sophisticated" urbanites of Britain than with his more rough and ready compatriots in the auld sod. Nevertheless, it's clear that one of the qualities that endeared him to audiences in the UK was his dashing Celtic irreverence. Wogan spoke to the listeners and viewers as though they were good friends, with none of the starchiness often a feature of British broadcasting during the '70s and '80s.
He was, in that sense, the classic Irishman done well. Wogan felt he had no choice but leave in order to make something of himself – yet, once abroad, being Irish proved pivotal to his success.