independent

Thursday 24 April 2014

Wogan’s run – the King of banter finally goes blankety blank

Man behind the mic: Terry Wogan. Photo: Getty Images

The effusive leader column in the august Times of London said it all: "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone. Terry Wogan is abandoning his microphone."

Across the Irish sea, the decision of Limerick's most celebrated son to step down from his BBC radio breakfast show created an outpouring of affection that is perhaps hard to comprehend in his home country.

Closer to home not everyone appreciates just how popular Wogan is. His station BBC Radio 2 cannot be picked up on most radios here.

With eight million listeners, Sir Terry is now reckoned to be the most popular radio broadcaster in Europe.

Twenty years ago, Wogan elicited mixed responses. His implausible coiffure, his tuneless hit single The Floral Dance and his patchy stint as a TV chatshow host led some to believe that he was the epitome of naff. But his stature has, if anything, grown as he edged closer to the end of his career.

Curiously, the laconic son of a Limerick grocer has become a quintessential English humorist. He peddles an easy, quirky and frequently surreal, banter that is heard by an audience ranging from the Queen, who is said to be a devoted fan, to tube drivers on the London Underground.

With barely a nod over the Irish Sea, the knight of the realm is routinely described as a "national treasure'' in his adopted country.

If the soccer hooligan and the Jordan-style chav offer an image of England that most would prefer to forget, Wogan's version is a homespun idealised world of village greens, warm beer, cricket and maiden aunts, with a few double entendres thrown in.

Even the corny jokes are endearing. Here he was on swine flu this week: "If you receive an email warning of the dangers of eating pork meat, don't worry. It's only spam.''

As the novelist Allison Pearson put it: "Wogan's world has been an antidote to everything that is barbarous and dismaying about Britain.''

Of course, we are not excluded from the party. To hundreds of thousand of Irish people, who found themselves living by choice or necessity some place across the channel over the past three decades, Wogan's mellifluous banter also conjures up an image of England.

You might have heard the voice from a radio set while standing at a railway station buffet in Crewe, or in a greasy spoon cafe in Ealing. And it always took a chill out of the air.

With the tone of a jovial sergeant major he would announce: "And now, on the roof of Broadcasting House, we await the dance of the BBC virgins . . . I am duty bound to tell you, dear listener, that nobody has turned up.''

The Times perhaps over-egged the pudding when it suggested that Wogan's fans are so loyal that they would still choose to wake up with Wogan whispering in their ear, even if the alternatives on offer were George Clooney or Angelina Jolie. In person.

So how did this son of a Limerick grocer, whose quiz show Jackpot was axed by RTE, rise to the top of the crowded broadcasting tree close to four decades ago and stay there, regaling his listeners with flights of fancy that veer from the nonsensical to the surreal?

"The BBC knew I was successful early on," he told one interviewer, "but they weren't sure why. . . It just works. It just does."

Reflecting on his success this week, Gay Byrne told me his friend Terry was blessed with a sunny disposition.

"He has always had that ever since he started and he does not change when he is off microphone or off camera. He comes across as naturally cheerful, and the listeners love that.''

"He has that easy assurance that leads you to believe he can see the funny side of everything,'' says the Daily Telegraph's radio critic Gillian Reynolds. "If it's raining and it's Monday morning and it's gloomy and you've heard the news and everything's going to hell in a handcart, it helps to have someone who is cheery company."

Wogan's regular protestations that he never prepares for his shows are scarcely credible.

"He makes it seem effortless,'' says Gay Byrne, "but you can be sure that a lot of preparation goes into it.''

According to admirers who bade him farewell this week he confounded the poet TS Eliot's view of radio as a medium that permits "millions of people to listen to the same joke at the same time, and yet remain lonesome".

Wogan, according to the Times, husbanded a cosy community whose members knew that millions of others were laughing with them.

To his eight million listeners he is known simply as the Togmeister. The acronym TOG stands for Terry's Old Geezers (and Girls). He has an ability to turn the most mundane details of a radio show into a running joke. He calls Lynn Bowles, the traffic reporter, the "Totty from Splotty'' and refers repeatedly to the "lost city of Leicester''. Wogan has spun out his exchanges with newsreader John "Boggy'' Marsh into a whole series of stories.

Henry Kelly, who also made his name as a broadcaster in Britain, remembers a young Wogan when he was working in the Royal Bank in Phibsboro in Dublin.

"I never would have known that he would have gone on to become the biggest broadcaster in Britain," said Kelly this week.

As well being Europe's most popular broadcaster, Wogan is also one of the longest-serving presenters in these islands.

The RTE cub was reporting on the visit of US President John F Kennedy to Ireland, 46 years ago. Clips of the broadcast show a much more pronounced Limerick accent.

Right from the start, Wogan revelled in off-the-wall pranks, according to former colleagues. When Brendan Balfe first arrived in RTE in the 1960s, Wogan was supposed to be his supervisor.

A nervous Balfe was led into the continuity suite by Terry to read his first long announcement. Suddenly, live on air, he felt cold water pouring onto his head and down on to his script. Wogan spilled an entire glass of water on top of him.

"What did you do that for?" enquired the mortified rookie.

And the senior man replied: "Part of the initiation ceremony dear boy -- did you not know?''

Wogan's self-deprecating drollery is now seen as the epitome of Englishness, but Balfe believes there are plenty of Irish influences.

There are touches of Flann O'Brien, the novelist who described bicycles taking on human qualities.

Brendan Balfe says: "I think that one of the biggest influences on Terry was Denis Meehan, an RTE broadcaster from that era, who loved flights of fancy. There are influences too from SJ Perelman (a famous New York humorist) and James Stephens (an Irish writer preoccupied with fairies).''

Married to his Irish wife Helen for 44 years and now on a salary of €1m a year, Wogan believes that he would have struggled to develop as a broadcaster if he had stayed on at RTE.

"All the development there, in terms of ad libbing and freedom of broadcasting, did not happen until the 1980s,'' he told RTE radio interviewer Colm Keane. "It took 20 years for RTE to catch up. If I hadn't come across to the UK, I wouldn't have had the same freedom to ad lib -- to make it up as I went along.''

As much as any diplomat or politician, Terry Wogan played a role in softening the image of Ireland at a time when IRA bombs were killing civilians. His constant levity seemed to douse the flames.

"He once told me that he had never received a nasty, abusive letter from an English person during that time of IRA atrocities,'' says Gay Byrne. "That shows what kind of man he is.''

His humour is frequently described as gentle, but his lengthy stint presenting the Eurovision Song Contest did not always endear him to our continental cousins. Most memorably, he once described the Danish presenters of Eurovision as "Dr Death and the tooth fairy''. But even the targets of his Eurovision derision would have eventually been won over by his charm.

The English novelist Allison Pearson this week summed up his appeal by means of an Irish joke: "Heard the one about the Irishman who reminded the British of what they could be at their best? His name was Terry Wogan."

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