A tumbling Maeve Binchy, a drunken George Best, an imperious Vanessa Redgrave... a former researcher on TV’s ‘Wogan’ reflects on starry guests 30 years after the series ended
Even Maeve Binchy might have baulked at the melodrama of the plot line: best-selling author collapses on ‘live’ TV show.
As the novelist from Dalkey rushed down the narrow, spiral staircase to the stage where chat show host Terry Wogan awaited her arrival, the previous guest – a centenarian in a wheelchair – was being manoeuvred up the stairs.
Maeve, none too nimble on her feet, tumbled over the ascending geriatric and landed spread-eagled in the wings of West London’s BBC Television Theatre. By the time she staggered onto the guest sofa, the breathless writer appeared to be on the verge of cardiac arrest.
I take no pride in the part I played in Maeve’s near-death experience.
As Terry was introducing her to the audience one floor below, I was chatting merrily away to her in the upstairs hospitality suite (or “hostility room”, as Terry called it). In haste, I had propelled her towards the dark
In the event, it was the floor manager who later got it in the neck, while yours truly survived to research many other guests throughout 1986 and into the following year. And, despite her TV mishap, Maeve Binchy continued to thrive and write prodigiously for another quarter of
Now, 30 years after the final Wogan show was aired, it occurs to me that the list of guests still alive must be shorter than that of those who’ve departed. Terry himself – probably Britain’s most popular and high-profile broadcaster during the 1970s and 1980s – died in 2016 at the age of 77.
Born in Limerick, Terry remained very much an Irishman – despite working for the BBC and living in Britain for most of his career.
Though known for presenting a range of TV shows – including Children in Need and the Eurovision Song Contest – he was considered by many to be at his best on radio, drawing an estimated eight million listeners to his weekday breakfast programme. In his heyday, he was believed to be the most listened-to broadcaster in Europe.
While there’s a whole generation – actually probably more like two generations – to whom Terry and the Wogan show will be completely unknown, the smooth-talking Irishman and his TV guests are fondly remembered and frequently name-checked in my household.
In the 1980s, my wife Jean and I were both researchers on Wogan (though she had moved on to documentaries by the time I, fresh over from Ireland, joined the chat show team – the first and only job I ever managed to land through answering a newspaper advertisement).
Our memories are tempered by nostalgia as well as a sharp sense of mortality. It seems that not a month goes by without another of Terry’s interviewees giving up the ghost.
“I see so-and-so has died,” my wife will say.
“Oh dear,” I’ll respond, “he was one of my guests.”
Fortunately, though, others are very much alive and kicking.
The team of researchers worked to three producers under one executive producer.
As researchers, we’d meet the guests beforehand to winkle out of them their best anecdotes, which Terry could then prompt them to recount on air (the quid pro quo being that sometimes – though not always – they had a book or perhaps a film to promote).
The meeting might take place in a restaurant or in the person’s home. Among those I took out to lunch in London was the actress Charlotte Rampling, who was utterly charming and gorgeous and remains very much a pin-up among the veterans in my tennis group.
My memories are less fond of actress and socialist firebrand Vanessa Redgrave, who imperiously waved a fiver at me before the show, dispatching me to buy her a packet of fags.
Mountaineer Chris Bonnington – then the oldest person to have summited Everest – opted for breakfast in a fancy Mayfair hotel where, to his disbelief, I had to leave my watch as collateral with the maître d’ because I’d forgotten my wallet.
My standing was then further diminished in the climber’s estimation – when, at the behest of my producer, I telephoned to postpone him the day before he was due to appear on the show. His outrage roared down the line with the force of a Himalayan gale.
The film director John Boorman (Point Blank, Deliverance, Hell in the Pacific) was generous with his time and stories.
He had several anecdotes about his friend Lee Marvin, with whom he once embarked on a bender which saw them driving down an LA freeway with the American actor on the roof rack. Unsurprisingly, they were pulled over by the police.
“Excuse me sir, do you realise you have Lee Marvin on your roof rack?” asked the cop.
“What’s the problem, officer? Is there a law against it?” parried Boorman.
“No, but there should be,” said the cop.
Former British prime minister Ted Heath I visited at his home, as I did Lord Hailsham, by then crippled with arthritis. The former UK lord chancellor took a great shine to my backpack – which he thought would be just the thing for carrying his papers, thus leaving his hands free to hold his two walking sticks.
After his TV appearance, we exchanged letters in Latin, my side of the correspondence being facilitated by a friend’s father, Professor JV Luce of Trinity College Dublin. ‘Grates tibi, vir clarissime,’ began my letter, thanking him for appearing on the ‘spectaculus’ of Terentio Wogan.
Looking back over my notes – bizarrely, I’ve kept all of my research notes in a ring binder – I see that most of my guests were from the ‘serious’ end of the spectrum (politicians, campaigners and so on), rather than from showbiz and entertainment. I suppose this was because of my journalistic background.
In any case, it now seems a bit of a pity. Looking down the list of MPs I met – Kenneth Baker, Leon Brittan, and so on – I reflect that these once-household names are today probably largely unknown by anyone under the age of 50.
I don’t get a good feeling from the fact that one of my guests was Cyril Smith, the rotund British politician who, after this death in 2010, was revealed to have been a serial paedophile. (I visited him in the northern English terrace house he shared with his mother and a collection of hideous Toby jugs.)
I enjoyed meeting the late Lady Valerie Goulding, founder of the Central Remedial Clinic in Dublin for children with serious physical disabilities.
She would have been shocked to learn that her leading fundraiser, media personality Jimmy Savile, was another predatory sex offender whose crimes were only confirmed after his death. His Jim’ll Fix It office was down the corridor from Wogan, though I don’t recall ever having seen him at the BBC.
I visited author and journalist Auberon Waugh, son of novelist Evelyn Waugh, at his office in London’s Soho district. He was a good raconteur but fearsomely reactionary. My notes record him expressing “extreme dislike for the working class, wimmin (sic), punks, hippies, lesbians, ferrets and anti-smoking campaigners”.
Another potential guest who I tracked down to Soho was the columnist and legendary drinker, Jeffrey Bernard. Not surprisingly, I reached him by calling into his favourite watering hole – The Coach & Horses.
However, his rant against French women – he’d just returned from the Deauville races – was so gross that I decided, then and there, he was not Wogan material.
I suspect, by the time he’d ordered his next double vodka, that he’d forgotten our conversation had ever taken place.
Not so long ago my wife and I were sitting down to watch A Very British Scandal, a TV drama about the marriage and extra-marital affairs of the Duchess of Argyll, aka Marg of Arg.
“She was one of my guests,” declared my wife. “She’d nothing interesting to say.”
Not surprisingly, the so-called ‘Dirty Duchess’ never revealed to Terry, or indeed anyone else, the identity of the lover (known at the time as ‘the headless man’) with whom she was photographed in the early 1960s engaging in, as the newspapers had it, “a sexual act”.
Other guests performed even more poorly on the show: footballing legend George Best came on drunk and slurring his words; American actress Anne Bancroft (perhaps best remembered for her role as the seductive older woman in The Graduate) spoke in monosyllables; American comedian Chevy Chase (of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live fame) hardly opened his mouth, and David Bowie wasn’t much better.
Terry, in uncharacteristically indignant mood, apparently said afterwards that he’d wanted to slap the singer.
And what of the man himself?
“What’s Terry really like?” people would ask. You’d find yourself telling them that he was actually terribly nice.
“He’s what you see on TV,” you’d add, equally unsatisfactorily.
There must of course have been a part of himself which he kept for his family and friends. But the Terry Wogan that his team knew was a man of unfailing congeniality.
I suspect he rarely read our research notes – but he always listened patiently as we briefed him about “our guests” before the show. Terry was a pro of the old school. And he had charm to spare.
He went out there on stage and chatted away, three nights a week. And he was never stuck for a word, even if some of his guests were.
“Orr”, he said when we first met. “Another Irishman on the team. What is the world coming to at all, at all?”
And when I left, he said, “You’ll come crawling back before long, you’ll see.”
And he was right. I did rejoin the show briefly in 1988, but again left thinking – in the way of all striving young people everywhere – that I should try my hand at something different. But, despite a stint on a travelogue show which I enjoyed, I never really did find my niche in TV and eventually moved back to print.
I’ve sometimes found myself regretting not having stayed longer on Wogan. But had I done so, maybe the year that I spent there wouldn’t now seem such a golden moment of my youth.