Sunday 19 January 2020

Wogan's way - the biggest sin in his book was to be boring

Terry's rapport with his audience, his humour, his wide knowledge of the world and gentle send-ups, endeared him to millions, writes Brendan Balfe

Terry in the studio. Photo: Maxpix
Terry in the studio. Photo: Maxpix

Brendan Balfe

The demise of Terry Wogan last January, marked not just the passing of a witty, generous and talented man, but also of a style of broadcasting. Terry embodied the concept of public service broadcasting, not as a policy to be adhered to, but as an approach to presenting programmes. His many qualities were recalled at a memorial service to the legendary broadcaster in Westminster Abbey last week.

Terry's good nature and upbringing instilled in him a respect for people, but with a healthy disregard for authority and procedure. As the senior announcer in Radio Eireann, that sometimes entailed pouring water over announcers' heads as they read formal announcements (my head, for instance).

Denis Meehan, the head of the announcing section, and Terry's boss, stressed that if we respect the listener, we must treat them as being intelligent. Denis had written a university treatise on the Irish Fantasists - James Stephens, Flann O'Brien - and Terry was much influenced by them, joining Denis in surreal and impromptu conversations on, perhaps, the recent failure of the Chilean banana crop.

Terry realised that the listeners may be uninformed on certain topics, but they are not stupid, so talk down to them at your peril. But make fun of your colleagues, by all means and, to relieve the long hours, try to set fire to their scripts as they were being read.

But, when he went on air, he gave of his best - the key principle being that, if you respect your audience, they deserve you at your peak. That means taking care of professional standards - getting it right, be it pronunciation, preparation or production values. Ad-libbing and being spontaneous work best when you think it out first. Terry always said that it takes a lot of experience before you can open your microphone on radio and be confident that something interesting will come out.

Continuity announcing on radio engenders a sense of alertness. When you hand over to, say, Jimmy Magee in Bratislava for a soccer commentary, it's possible that no sound may emerge. A faulty line means that the announcer has to improvise and fill the gap. When a symphony concert under-ran one evening, Terry had no suitable music lined up, so he proceeded to read a selection of station announcements. Still with time to fill, he said, "You might like to know who'll be announcing for you over the next while…" and read the entire announcers' roster for the next fortnight.

Terry’s children Katherine, Alan and Mark alongside Terry’s wife, Helen. Photo: PA
Terry’s children Katherine, Alan and Mark alongside Terry’s wife, Helen. Photo: PA

Recognising the incongruity of closing down the station at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, Terry reminded listeners that if they wanted more music, they could always listen to the BBC Light Programme. A prescient comment, as it happened, and when Terry applied for work at the BBC, he sent over a recording of Hospitals Requests, the programme he most enjoyed doing, allowing him the opportunity to ad lib. Although some listeners were somewhat upset when he played a Clancy Brothers track called Isn't It Grand Boys, without realising that the second line was "... to be bloody well dead". It is perhaps indicative of his informal approach that when the tape was received at the BBC, it was back to front and had to be laboriously rewound.

Terry presented an edition of Late Night Extra on the BBC Light Programme, commuting between Dublin and London every week. When he eventually resigned from the staff of RTE, I produced a programme called Take it from Terry, sponsored by International Artists, the management company run by Oliver Barry. Such programmes were always scripted, but one week I told Terry that instead of supplying him with a script, I would give him just a list of records, so he should ad lib. The format was influenced by the pop shows being done on pirate stations like Radio Caroline, and when Terry wanted to convince the BBC that he could also do pop radio, he used that sponsored programme as a sample.

Serving the listener entails building a relationship with the listener and Terry was masterful at it. His quirky sense of humour allied to his deep compassion and intelligence established a rapport with his audience. He knew instinctively that service is not servility - it means connecting with the audience on an equal level, conscious that if what you are doing doesn't entertain them, then you're doing it wrong. The opposite of entertainment is not seriousness; it's boredom.

He believed that radio stretched the imagination, while television contracted it. On BBC Radio, he convinced some listeners that the director-general resided in a small cottage on the roof of Broadcasting House and could be seen most mornings doing his aerobic exercises in his familiar green leotard. Moreover, on the roof, the BBC chairman presided over the annual Dance of the Seven BBC Virgins. "Unfortunately", said Terry, "no one has ever turned up."

His former colleague Brendan Balfe. Photo: Steve Humphreys
His former colleague Brendan Balfe. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The paradox of radio is that although your audience may be numbered in millions (Terry's was over eight million on BBC Radio 2), they are listening in ones. That means that they should be spoken to as individuals, not multitudes. Terry spoke gently, as if to friends who were in the same room as him, as indeed they were.

Terry's rapport with his audience, his humour, his wide knowledge of the world, together with his gentle sending up of sacred items, endeared him to millions. Art doesn't become art until it reaches its audience and provokes an emotional reaction. His listeners responded with full postbags, his audience loved him. In serving his public, Terry brought out the best in them.

Katie Melua performing at a memorial service in London’s Westminster Abbey last Tuesday
Katie Melua performing at a memorial service in London’s Westminster Abbey last Tuesday

Sunday Independent

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