'The Irish think better of you if you succeed from a distance'
Terry Wogan talks to Stephen Milton about family, his 'lucky' career and his hopes for retirement
Published 12/12/2013 | 21:02
Retirement seems to be a word that sits rather uneasily with Terry Wogan. Each time it's mentioned, he squirms slightly, wounded by a silent bullet.
But the glinting grin remains ever intact as he chronicles his slow ebb away from our small screens, 50 years after answering an advert in this very newspaper scouring the country for able announcers on Radio Eireann.
There's still his loyal commitment to Children in Need, a charitable extravaganza that comes once a year, and a Sunday morning breakfast show on BBC Radio 2, 'Weekend Wogan'.
But a throwaway remark suggests a desire for a something meatier, a little more challenging.
"For two weeks, I'm a precious commodity for the BBC when Children in Need comes round," he pointedly comments in those smooth, velvety tones, "and then they forget about me the rest of the 12 months. It's an odd change of pace. . ."
So I propose a few comeback ideas; the resurrection of legendary chat show 'Wogan', after its cancellation in the mid-90s? "I've actually been approached about coming back several times, but my time is done on that."
Perhaps a long-awaited return to Irish television screens? A homecoming for the prodigal son, as it were. "If I started doing something on television back in Ireland, you'd almost immediately get the 'Oh, he's not as big as he used to be.' Much as I love Ireland, the Irish think better of you if you succeed from further distances."
All that leaves then is. . . "Please don't say 'reality television'," he cutely interjects, rolling his eyes.
"I've been offered a lot of money to go on 'I'm a Celebrity' but I just can't do it. I'm not going to fling myself into the jaws of a crocodile for television. If you do something like that, you're with the D-list in the boondocks."
A hardly surprising response from a man who spent 16 years stirring eight million British listeners from their slumber on his signature morning show, 'Wake Up To Wogan'.
And despite the rejection of some slightly farfetched suggestions, it's still impossible to imagine him fully retired from the limelight. One pictures the last rites being read in a soundproof studio.
"No," chuckles Wogan, "I'll have to retire completely, because I'll have no choice. Everyone has to call it a day.
"There'll come a time when my thought process starts to slow down and I'm not reacting as I should and I want to recognise that before everybody else.
"Something like 'Children In Need' is about spontaneity. Everything I do is about spontaneity and I don't want the public to cotton on before I do.
"My family will tell me when they recognise it, and that will be the heartbreak."
Most know the story of the grocer's son done good from Limerick's Ennis Road. The Jesuit education at Crescent College; his move to Dublin at 15, and the early years as a clerk at Royal Irish Bank,
"I could have been a bank manager," he playfully blinks, "had I played my cards right."
Thwarting a 'promising' financial future, an employment notice in the 'Irish Independent' caught his glance.
"It said, 'Announcers wanted for Irish radio. Requirements: Gaelic, foreign languages.' I didn't have much in the way of either, but I could fake it and look like I knew what I was doing."
The handsome veneer, the likeable confidence, those mellifluous vocals; young Terry graduated as one of the first faces of Radio Telefis Eireann, but a small pool meant restricted opportunity.
Previously interning at Manchester's Granada Studios, Gay Byrne had a superior knowledge of the industry and became the golden boy of the new State broadcaster.
"He was the only one of us between myself, David Timlin, Andy O'Mahony and Mike Murphy, who knew what he was doing. He knew what you did when the light went red on the camera, that it was on."
Did this sow the seeds of a lifelong rivalry between the two television legends? "Not really. There was only room for a few on RTE and I wanted to see if I could make it elsewhere. Gay and I simply went our separate ways."
With his young wife, former model Helen Joyce, and their two-year-old son, Alan, Terry headed for London and the BBC in the late 60's, making the tentative steps towards an epic career across the water, magnificently eclipsing the efforts of his former cohorts back in Dublin.
'Blankety Blank', 'Come Dancing', 'Wogan', 'Children in Need', that mildly caustic 'Eurovision' commentary; for 40 years he gently dominated the airwaves, ascending to the ranks of national treasure, before stepping down from his daily morning show, 'Wake Up To Wogan', in 2009, indicating a professional deceleration at the age of 71.
He misses the daily routine, the camaraderie and buzz. He misses his TOGs (Terry's Old Gals/Geezers), who continue to mourn the Terry-shaped hole in their mornings and have to make do with 'Weekend Wogan' instead.
On the flipside, there's been no pining for the 5am starts or the stone shed since he stopped "sitting on my backside for most of the day".
And it must be said, he's in marvellous shape. A slender, taut face could easily belong to a man 20 years his junior. Streamlined and nimble, his buttoned navy dinner jacket barely strains as he periodically waves and gestures. And winks and grins and cajoles. The eyes retain that twinkly magic. The hair is a glossy dark thatch.
"My health's good, better since I stopped doing the morning radio show. I don't drink beer and I do about 30 minutes of exercise every day, which I find suits my declining years."
He's escaped any serious poor health -- save for a bout of diverticulitis, a bowel complaint, and some troublesome osteoarthritis in his left knee, which resulted in a bionic implant in 2009.
Health has been his wealth -- alongside a reported amassed fortune of £20m -- and he credits his youthful prowess to a jovial lifestyle.
"I think if you're an accountant and your job is serious, you have to concentrate
and be serious. My job is all about laughter and fun and that's kept me young.
"I'm an eternal optimist. I never understand the seriousness of the situation. If I wake up in the morning with a pain in my chest, I'll assume it's indigestion."
With such a zest for life, is he really so comfortable with increasing age? "We're all heading towards the grim reaper, and I am clinging on accordingly.
"I try not to think about it. It's God's joke on man, but you can't dwell. Otherwise you may as well walk out there and under a bus."
Ensconced at the 12-acre Wogan compound in leafy Buckinghamshire, family life has been kind to Terry and Helen, who celebrate their golden anniversary in 2015.
Sons Alan (46) and Mark (43) jointly run a booming restaurant empire, anchored by a Covent Garden flagship eaterie, Home Slice, while the youngest, Katherine (41), owns three restaurants of her own in Berkshire, including The Greene Oak in Windsor, where we meet today.
So far, it's five grandkids and counting and the close-knit clan regularly converge for special occasions.
For Terry's recent 75th in August, the entire brood made for their mid-sized chateau in Gascony in the South of France, where the youngest generation took great delight at lobbing water bombs from a balcony at granddad. "Absolutely no respect," he smiles proudly, "have you ever heard the likes."
His eldest, however, Vanessa, born a year into their marriage, sadly passed away at three weeks old from heart complications. He vaguely arches his neck when I mention her name. "You never forget," he says. "I remember it all so vividly. There was this awful sense of not being able to do anything. It was a terrible time, but no one walks through life unscathed.
"The things that happen in your life, they naturally mould you. I've had a tremendous amount of good fortune but nobody gets away free.
"You have your worries and you go on. And we lost a baby. Everybody has their tragedies."
Helen was always a devout Catholic, and took comfort from her religion. Terry never has.
"She goes to mass every week, she's a believer. When I went out with Helen first, I found myself on my knees, in her parents' lounge, doing the rosary. The sorrowful mysteries," he grins.
"I don't have what you call the gift of faith and you need to be a strong person not to have a faith. I'm agnostic or atheist, whatever way you look at it.
"Wait till I'm on my deathbed though and the second thoughts will come. I'll be looking for an escape plan. 'Hand me that rosary,' I'll say, which, I'm sure that happens in so many cases. . . and sure what does it matter."
At 75, the deprecating wry humour and engrossing anecdotes are all front and present, with no sign of weakening. It's best displayed in his latest tome, 'Something for the Weekend', a entertaining anthology of a few choice entries from his 'Daily Telegraph' column.
"This is about the seventh, eighth book I've had, and I'll always tour the country for book signings, which can be good fun. Or at least, they can provide some good chuckles.
"I had one a few years back in Nottingham and behind me are posters of my book, name and photos. And as I sign the books for the last few eager buyers, a young man smiles and approaches with what looks like a religious postcard. I smile and sign but he looks disappointed as he leaves. I turn to the manager, who explains: 'He thought you were Terry Waite.'"
Wogan claims his career happened entirely by accident, that his success was a fortunate string of professional mishaps. "It's always been about luck for me. It was on my side the day I auditioned for Radio Eireann and continued for the years I was on the BBC. I always made everything up, nothing was ever planned."
But surely, there has to be some intention? It can't have been all down to Lady Luck smiling down?
"When it comes to fame and fortune, you should never be chasing fame, you shouldn't be chasing money. What you should be doing is be as good as you can be at what you're doing and maybe if you're lucky, fame and fortune will come your way.
"The naked pursuit of money and fame will lead to unhappiness. But then I'm old-fashioned," he slowly winks. "I'm pathetic. Don't tell anybody."
'Something for the Weekend' is out now