Monday 9 December 2019

Terry Wogan - The voice that opened doors for the next generation of Irish

During decades when IRA barbarism tainted how the British saw Ireland, Terry Wogan offered a more authentic view of his homeland

Striking a rapport: Over the course of five decades, Terry Wogan was able to connect to successive generations.
Striking a rapport: Over the course of five decades, Terry Wogan was able to connect to successive generations.
Pioneers: Eamonn Andrews and Terry Wogan both became huge stars of TV in Britain.
Cork native and BBC heavyweight Graham Norton.
Terry Wogan with Pudsey the bear during a Children in Need photo call in 2008
John Meagher

John Meagher

It was on the venerable BBC radio show, Desert Island Discs, that Terry Wogan spoke candidly about being an Irish broadcaster in Britain at a time when being Irish there could be a very difficult cross to bear.

"It was very difficult," he recalled. "I was very conscious, for instance, you'd come up with a cheery morning (Irish) voice after some horrific bomb incident."

"I didn't feel any guilt [in being Irish]," he told Cara magazine in 2010, "because things being done in the name of Irish freedom were not being done by me or anyone I knew, or by the generations of Irish people who contributed to this country [Britain].

"All I felt was an Irish voice must be hard for some people. I had the odd death threat, but I think that was only from discerning listeners."

The Limerick man, who emigrated to Britain after a stint with RTÉ in Dublin, rarely had to experience the sort of casual racism that was directed towards his countrymen in the 1970s and into the 1980s, but there was no other reason than his nationality why a parcel bomb was once sent to him at the BBC.

"Wogan rarely drew explicit attention to his Irishness," wrote the English author and journalist Martin Kettle this week. "And yet, although he lived, worked and died in Britain, was knighted by the Queen, and was never reluctant to wave the Union Jack when the needs of the BBC required it, his Irishness was there whenever he opened his mouth.

"For more than 40 years he was probably the most prominent Irish person, and certainly the most familiar Irish voice, in Britain, rivalled for fame only by George Best and Bono, neither of whom could match Wogan's length of time in the spotlight."

Taoiseach Enda Kenny succinctly captured Wogan's importance when he noted that he had played a key part in building "a bridge between Britain and Ireland."

Dr Sean Campbell, a media studies lecturer at Anglia Ruskin University and author of Irish Blood, English Heart - the story of second generation Irish musicians in Britain - believes Wogan played his part in challenging perceptions about Irishness in Britain. "On the one hand, he was an audibly Irish voice - and audibility is key in the context of radio - at a time when Irish accents were often associated with negative social values such as the Troubles, and 'thick Paddy' jokes. In this context, he offered an antidote to the prevailing conception of the Irish in Britain.

"At the same time, he came to inhabit a sort of anomalous space between the two cultures where he could speak for Britain - at Eurovision, for instance - and in that way he seemed to transcend (for his viewers) Irish specificity, and exceed a strict idea of nationhood. In this sense, he might be seen as a transnational treasure, rather than the 'national treasure' that was bestowed on him this week."

The thousands of Irish who emigrate to Britain every year now and experience no negativity may not realise just how different the welcome would have been just 30 years ago.

"I think it's fair to say that in that particular period [1970s and '80s], anti-Irish hostility had pervaded everyday life and was part of mainstream British culture, whether in the form of 'Irish joke' books, which sold hundreds of thousands of copies, or through the 'suspect community' status that was heightened by the political context of the time," Campbell says. "In this context, Wogan - as an audibly Irish voice in the British media landscape - was associated with warmth, geniality and wit, and thus evoked a different sense of Irishness in Britain."

Dr Finola Doyle O'Neill, broadcast historian and lecturer at University College Cork, says he played "a huge part" in helping to shine a positive light on Irish people at the time. "I remember friends who emigrated and tried to change their accents to fit in," she says. "It was a difficult time, but here was somebody who was one of the top broadcasters on 'Auntie' [the BBC's long-standing nickname] and he spoke with a clear Irish accent."

Last year, Doyle O'Neill published a book on how Gay Byrne helped change Irish society, The Gaybo Revolution, and she believes Terry Wogan's impact on Britain might not be fully appreciated in this country. "Of course, people would remember him from his TV work on Blankety Blank and the Wogan show [which aired thrice weekly between 1985 and 1992]," she says, "but there wouldn't have been an understanding for what a huge deal he was on radio. And it was on his morning show [Wake Up to Wogan] that he really connected with Middle England because he was on air two hours a day, five days a week. We have a tremendous history of talk radio in this country so there wouldn't be anything like the audience for British radio here as there is for British TV."

Wogan's BBC Radio 2 show was one of the most popular in British broadcasting history, regularly pulling in 8 million listeners. When first told that the show was attracting an audience in excess of that amount, he quipped: "Hang on. There's 60 million people in the country, what are the other 52 million listening to?" The numbers achieved for game show Blankety Blank were even more spectacular - up to 20 million until he handed the reins to Les Dawson in 1984.

Finola Doyle O'Neill says he didn't play on his Irishness, although his recent TV series Terry Wogan's Ireland suggests he was fiercely proud of his roots. "He understood English people very well and had a great gift at striking up a rapport with his audiences. Listeners loved when he talked about them as 'Terry's Old Geezers'. And when it came to giving something of himself, he know how much of his private life to share and how much to keep back - quite a tricky balancing act.

"And he could be subversive too. He could be quite critical of the BBC in his own way and was never afraid to poke fun at it - and at himself. There was a lot of humour in his broadcasting - he loved to celebrate the absurd in life, whether on his radio show or when commentating on Eurovision. But he wasn't mean or nasty and people liked him for that."

Wogan's longevity on the BBC was remarkable and his pulling power legendary. Over the course of five decades, he seemed able to connect with successive generations - a feat unmatched by almost all his contemporaries, many of whom, Jimmy Savile especially, have been subsequently disgraced.

Sean Campbell says it's likely that he helped pave the way for the glut of Irish broadcasters - Graham Norton (inset) and Dara Ó Briain chief among them - who have become heavyweights of contemporary broadcasting in the UK. "He helped create a space for an Irish accent to be part of the mainstream of British broadcasting. The fact that Graham Norton took on the Eurovision role is perhaps evidence of this."

News of his death on Sunday, encouraged several Irish broadcasters to express their gratitude for making Irish voices acceptable on mainstream British TV and radio.

"The likes of Terry blazed a trail for people like me," Ryan Tubridy said. "In difficult times he, Eamonn Andrews, and for a brief period Gay Byrne, were the acceptable face of Irishmen abroad. They humanised the Irish character and in years to come we'll probably look back on them as unintentional cultural ambassadors."

Dara Ó Briain also paid tribute to his role in smoothing Irish-English relations. "[It's] hard to quantify what he achieved, not just in broadcasting but for the Irish in Britain and hard to separate what he achieved and the accent he did it in, from the times in which he did it. [He] opened to the door to all who followed."

Graham Norton, the nearest UK popular culture has to a Terry Wogan today, tweeted: "He made it seem effortless. And for a young boy in Ireland, he made it seem possible." When Norton replaced Wogan on the Eurovision coverage, the older man famously told him the secret of the job was "not to drink before song nine."

The broadcaster Dermot O'Leary summed up the bond that many second generation Irish had with him when he noted "he was a unique connection between Ireland and the UK, which, when growing up in an Irish household in the 80s, can't be overstated."

In his heyday, Wogan was impossible to ignore. "Whether he liked it or not," wrote Martin Kettle, "Wogan was a significant Irish presence in Britain right through the era of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley. To some Irish nationalist eyes that may perhaps brand him as someone who made dubious accommodations with Britishness at a sensitive time. To his British listeners, however, and possibly to many of his Irish ones too, Wogan was a reminder that there was also much more to the British-Irish relationship than nationalist and loyalist politics, and that people on both sides of the Irish Sea have more in common than some of them sometimes like to pretend."

Lfe and times of a broadcasting giant

Terry Wogan with Pudsey the bear during a Children in Need photo call in 2008

1938: Born Michael Terence Wogan in Limerick

1953: Moves to Dublin, attends the Jesuit-run Belvedere College

1961: Joins RTÉ as a continuity announcer

1965: Marries Helen Joyce in Dublin. The couple would have three children

1966: Moves to the BBC

1971: Hosts the BBC's Eurovision coverage - a role he performed until 2008

1972: Presents the breakfast show on Radio 2, it soon becomes a ratings sensation. Hosts it until 1982

1980: Hosts charity fundraiser Children in Need (above) - a role he held until 2014

1979: Hosts game show Blankety Blank which pulls in 20 million viewers. He departs in 1983

1985: His chat-show, Wogan, moves to three days a week. It runs until 1992

1992: Launches new breakfast show, Wake Up to Wogan. A weekend version runs from 2010 to 2015

2016: Dies of cancer.

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