Sunday 4 December 2016

Wogan's 'unshouty' gentle world made us feel better

Allison Pearson

Published 02/02/2016 | 02:30

Making the ‘Terry Wogan’s Ireland’ documentary for the BBC in 2011
Making the ‘Terry Wogan’s Ireland’ documentary for the BBC in 2011
Terry Wogan meets Queen Elizabeth alongside broadcasters John Humphreys, James Naughtie and Chris Moyles, and BBC executive Jenny Abramsky in 2008

The term 'national treasure' is bandied about so indiscriminately that its value is almost lost. But if anyone embodied what it means to be treasured, really, really adored, by millions of people from all walks of life, it was Michael Terence Wogan.

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The news that the lovely fella who put a smile on our morning faces for 40 years is no more was hard to accept.

When I broke the sad tidings to one friend, they cried out in protest: "But Terry can't die."

Alas, dear Wogan, a man of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. To call Terry Wogan a disc jockey is like saying Roger Federer is useful on the baseline or Paul McCartney dabbles in songwriting.

The talent, though hard to pin down because it was always in motion, arose from a great love of language and a relaxed mastery of the same.

There is no record of Wogan kissing the Blarney Stone, but the gift of the gab was surely born with him in Limerick - where else? - in 1938.

He was educated by Jesuits at Dublin's formidable Belvedere College, a cradle for some of Ireland's greatest writers, including James Joyce.

Although Terry would have been the first to reject any eejit, high-falutin' comparisons, the line of his wit can be traced back to the Irish masters.

No small part of his achievement was to reinvent the surreal, storytelling skills of Flann O'Brien - the novelist, playwright and satirist - for the formerly sedate breakfast show on BBC Radio 2.

Each of us will have our favourite memories.

Mine is from the mid-seventies: sitting in the back of our Ford Cortina on the way to school, hearing Terry say he was looking out over the roof of Broadcasting House, where the BBC's then director general - "the DG" - was in a form-hugging leotard doing early-morning exercises with the staff.

By spinning this kind of surreal yarn and sharing his delight in the foibles of everyday life and silly telly, Wogan soon became Britain's go-to jester. His lightly bemused commentary turned the execrable 'Eurovision Song Contest' into an annual feast of fun.

Levity

Who can forget Terry's riff on the ill-fated Danish presenters, Dr Death and the Tooth Fairy? He became so loved and admired that there was a national pact never to mention the wig or even to baulk at the reported salary of £800,000 a year (a figure that equated to roughly 10p per listener a year). As Tel said: "I think I'm cheap at the price."

Queen Elizabeth was among his devoted listeners. Seldom has the royal seal of approval been more deserved, for if she was Britain's centre of gravity, then Terry Wogan was its centre of levity.

What was the secret to his remarkable longevity as a broadcaster?

Well, not being cool, he could never go out of fashion. The man who modelled Aran-knit cardies and parped his way through 'The Floral Dance' belonged unashamedly in the middle of the road.

In both style and attitude, he was a one-man rebuke to a BBC increasingly obsessed with youth, minorities and the 'edgy'. Wogan described himself as bourgeois, "an ordinary man".

He was conservative with a small 'c' (and perhaps a large one), another thing that put him at odds with his paymasters.

A stalwart of the BBC, he was among its fiercest critics, always speaking up on behalf of the licence payer.

"The great maxim at the BBC is, 'If it ain't broke, break it,'" was one blissful jibe delivered with that lethal Limerick charm.

Terry Wogan said that if he were starting out now, his gentle style would hold him back.

"I do wonder if I would make it in radio today. Probably not. Things are more confrontational.

"They want people who are louder, brasher, more shouty. I don't like shouty," he said.

The public agreed.

In its gentle, teasing way, for the best part of half-a-century, Wogan's world was an antidote to everything that was barbarous, dismaying and shouty about modern life.

Like his favourite author, PG Wodehouse, Terry created an affable, innocent, fictional world that you could step into and, no matter how lousy or nasty life seemed, it always made you feel better.

On September 7, 2009, live on air, he announced the end of 'Wake Up To Wogan'.

For a few seconds, the maestro of mirth took off the jester's cap and there was an audible crack in that honeyed baritone when he said: "I was hoping to break it to you, my loyal listener, more gently.

"I owe you, for endless years, countless hours of morning companionship, friendship, good humour, and laughter. Your loyalty and support have been a beacon of love in my life."

Actually, Terry, it is we who owed you for all those things.

I'm glad you lived to see the outpouring of affection and sweet sorrow occasioned by that parting.

We see it now as a dress rehearsal for this, the last and saddest signing-off. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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