Terry Wogan interview: 'These days I’m Terry No Mates’
Sir Terry Wogan has died at the age of 77. Here he talked retirement, regrets and his enduring love of radio
Terry Wogan is sitting opposite me on his plump beige sofa, talking about how much he misses his Radio 2 breakfast show.
At least I think that’s what he’s saying, because I’m struggling to keep my eyes open. It’s not boredom – far from it; at 75, Sir Terry is a chortling, stately, quip-a-minute man, ending every sentence with a punchline, usually aimed at himself.
No, it’s something else that’s lulling me into a stupor: that voice. Smooth, velvety, it’s the sound eight million of us woke up to for 28 years, lilting its way into the bedrooms of the nation.
Before he retired from Wake Up to Wogan in December 2009, Sir Terry was not only the most popular radio broadcaster in Britain, but the most listened-to man in Europe – though, with that voice, I tell him, he never did a good job of getting any of us out of bed.
“Oh, I’m a great believer in the power of the pause,” he says, pausing. “Radio is a bit brasher now. My style was slower. I just used to go in, open the microphone and say the first thing that came into my head.”
He will do a little more preparation, he promises, for Proms in the Park, which he is presenting live from Hyde Park on September 7. He’s been doing it for 17 years – “so long that they’re probably going to shoot me on stage” – and loves it. “It’s an iconic evening that’s very important in British life,” he says. “It’s great fun as an Irishman to do it.”
There is something wonderful about one national institution hosting another. Not that Sir Terry, who was knighted in 2005, sees himself that way. “My life has been a happy accident,” he insists. “Anybody who succeeds in anything should count their lucky stars, because that’s the biggest element. It’s not hard work, it’s not necessarily talent. I’ve been at this for so long that people think I know what I’m doing.” He leans forward, green-blue eyes twinkling. “I can assure you – I don’t.”
Since leaving his breakfast show, he has been enjoying the lie-ins (“though my body-clock tells me I’m a lark, so I tend to get up early”), but he misses his team and, of course, his listeners, the beloved Togs (Terry’s Old Geezers/Gals).
“They were my raison d’être for 30 years,” he says, affectionately. “People ask how I always managed to be so cheerful and I tell them: if you go to a doctor, you don’t expect him to say, 'I’ve an awful headache myself.’ It was my duty to be happy. That’s the way I was brought up.”
Sir Terry, the son of a grocery store manager, spent his childhood in Limerick, where he was educated at a Jesuit school. At 15, his family moved to Dublin, where he later worked as a cashier at the Royal Bank of Ireland. It was “great fun – flinging sponges across the floor, tearing up bank notes so your colleague had to stick them together with Sellotape”.
He spent his spare time playing rugby (until he damaged his knee, which he recently had replaced), reading philosophy and listening to BBC radio shows – a passion that shaped his career.
It is this self-deprecating humour that has earned Sir Terry his place in public life. Throughout his career – presenting shows such as Come Dancing, Blankety Blank, Eurovision and Children in Need – we have felt that we know him. Where the BBC is our kindly Auntie, Sir Terry is the reassuring Uncle – whimsical, wise, putting the chaotic world around him to rights.
In the late Fifties, he answered a newspaper advert for an announcer on national radio station RTE. “To this day I don’t know why I applied,” he laughs. “For some reason I got called to an audition, and then, extraordinarily, I ended up getting a permanent position. My first wages were £14 3s 7d, which was a step up from a fiver a week in the bank. That was how it all started.”
He moved on to Irish television and, in 1967, wrote a speculative letter to the BBC asking for a job. He got his first morning radio show in 1972 and had soon won over seven million listeners.
In 1984, he switched to television again, which culminated in Wogan, his weekly chat show that at one time was aired three times a week. He returned to radio in the early Nineties, and, eight weeks after leaving his breakfast show, started presenting Weekend Wogan, his current two-hour Sunday morning slot.
Sir Terry, in dapper red corduroys, beige shirt and shoes with no socks, looks like a cross between a country gent and a farmer. He lives with Helen, his wife of 48 years, in a vast house in Buckinghamshire, surrounded by 12 acres of lush greenery.
Every wall is plastered with photographs and paintings; every surface filled with trinkets. The living room is dominated by a 50in television (“In our declining years, the old eyesight begins to go,” he explains), on which he and Helen like to watch sport.
The house is always busy – during my visit, I count two gardeners, a handyman, a window cleaner and various children. “It’s like Christmas Day at the workhouse,” he chirrups.
He once said much of modern television “could be presented by a dachshund” – though today he is kinder. “Sometimes I wonder if [announcers] wouldn’t be better off having a training course like I did. We were taught emphasis and pronunciation. And I find current presenters lacking a little in inflection. But then I’m an old curmudgeon.”
He enjoys the radio, too: classical music and occasionally “dear old Chris [Evans, his successor on Radio 2]”. “His programme is the antithesis of what I used to do. It’s full of fun things happening. Whereas mine had nothing to stimulate.”
Have recent revelations about the BBC taken the shine off the golden years? “Not for me,” he says, without hesitation. “What’s happened is peripheral. Golden handshakes, pay packets. They happen in big corporations. Nobody paid me a sweetheart deal when I said I was off – I should have thought about that.”
On the Jimmy Savile allegations, he is considerably graver. “I was completely unaware of it – 99.9 per cent of us were. But I’m not sure we can be blaming the BBC for the behaviour of individuals. They can’t be held responsible. It’s a torrid time for people in the public eye. When you look at the kind of people who are being exposed by Operation Yewtree – God, it gives you pause for thought.”
The recent years have focused on his hobbies – golf (he holds the record for the longest holed putt ever televised, set in 1981), reading, writing – and spending time with family. His three children, Katherine, Mark and Alan, are grown up and he has five grandchildren, the eldest of whom is eight.
He is, he boasts, a “tremendously cool” granddad. “I stood on a balcony in France a few weeks ago while my grandchildren fired water bombs at me from a catapult,” he says, proudly. Sir Terry enjoys a drink – he makes a “mean” Cosmopolitan – but does 30 minutes of gentle exercise a day (“an old guy’s thing”), to help him stay in shape.
Retirement is a long way off, though he recognises it’s easier for men to continue in the industry. “It’s a pity. There’s no reason why older women shouldn’t be presenting programmes in the same way older men do,” he adds. “The only thing you can say is that it’s a visual medium, and once you’re beginning to shamble on set and show the old wrinkles, it might be time to stop.” He grins. “Of course, you might do what Jeremy Paxman does and cover it all up with a beard.”
Does he have any regrets? In the Eighties, he was asked to present a chat show in America, but decided the upheaval would be too much for his young family. “I do kind of regret that,” he admits. “Nobody gets a life without pain. We all have things we suffer. Over the past five to seven years, I’ve spoken at so many memorials and funerals of my closest friends. I’m Terry No Mates now. Sometimes I wonder, where did everybody go?”
Whether he knows it or not, we’re still here and dreading the day that the great Sir Terry Wogan decides it’s time to go off-air for good. “I’m having great fun for now,” he says, serious for a moment. “But it won’t last for ever. When I realise I’m no longer sharp as a tack – more like sharp as a sausage – that’s when it’s time to give it all up.”
Another from the archive: Life lessons with Terry Wogan