With his ready self-deprecation and an ability to mock inoffensively, Terry Wogan, who has died aged 77 after suffering from cancer, was for several decades one of the most popular personalities on both radio and television in Britain – in his words, a jobbing broadcaster.
When he was in charge of the television game show Blankety Blank for four years from 1979, audiences exceeded 20 million. His weekday breakfast programme on Radio 2 (1972-84 and 1993-2009) reached 8 million listeners. And quite certainly some of the many millions who watched the Eurovision Song Contest, which he covered on radio and then TV from the early 1970s to 2008, did so more for his facetious commentaries than for the music.
Wogan began his broadcasting career in his native Ireland, but secured his status as a British audience-magnet with his eponymous television chat show, which ran for up to three times a week for a decade from 1982. His many guests included Rock Hudson, Dolly Parton, Raquel Welch, Lee Marvin, Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft.
All his shows, from playing music to radio listeners at breakfast time to television in the evening, were exploitations of a personality that managed to be reassuring and yet also sharp-witted. With Wogan there was banter, but it was not always bland. And he was no pushover to those in power. When in 1975 BBC officials told him to tone down his quips at the expense of the director general, he immediately inflated them with even more surreal splendour: “I have the ultimate sanction. I can walk out.”
Born in Limerick, Terry was the son of Michael, who worked in a branch of the grocers Leverett and Frye, and Rose. He grew up with the BBC radio Light Programme and its comedy shows.
At the age of five he went to Ferrybank prep school, which was run by nuns, but after 10 minutes walked home, and soon decided he was an atheist. When he was nine he went to Crescent College, Limerick, which was “not really nightmarish but the end of innocence”, where he was taught by Jesuits. At 15, as a result of his father’s promotion, the family moved to Dublin, where Terry attended Belvedere college, alma mater of James Joyce.
As a child Terry tended to withdraw from any group after a certain time, and admitted to being rather the same as an adult. During the various runs of the Wogan television chat show he later declared that, for him, the high point of the evening was dinner at home with his wife, Helen (nee Joyce). Having seen himself as “a well-behaved, conventional little mother’s boy, afraid of his own shadow”, once he had left Limerick he did not return until he was a star of the newly formed Irish radio and television service, Raidío Telefís Éireann (RTÉ), and was judging beauty contests.
Though he had vaguely wanted to be a journalist, his first jobs were with branches of the Royal Bank of Ireland. After four years with the bank, he saw an advertisement in the Irish Independent: the radio service wanted announcer-newsreaders. There was a training course of five evenings a week and 10,000 applicants, but Wogan had found “the only thing I could be good at”. He especially relished a turn of duty that came round every four or five weeks. This was hospital requests, through which he discovered that ad-libbing from postcards and letters in between records was something he could do easily.
This ease became his trademark. When RTÉ opened its television service on New Year’s Eve 1961, he was an obvious recruit, and soon found his face so irritatingly famous that he could no longer go into pubs. He began to form the view that, unlike radio, where listeners got to know and cherish their favourite personalities, television was instant fame that was instantly forgotten the moment a face disappeared. However, the television quiz show Jackpot, which he chaired, topped the ratings.
When he sent a tape of his radio work to the BBC Light Programme, the assistant head of the gramophone records department, Mark White – who was to become a mentor – offered him the chair of Midday Spin, a half-hour selection of records, which was made and broadcast from London, with his own commentary being inserted from RTÉ in Dublin.
Alternating between Dublin and London was congenial to him, but not to RTÉ. When he began Late Night Extra on Wednesdays for BBC Radio 1 and 2, flying back to Dublin afterwards, RTÉ told him to concentrate on his work for them – or else. Wogan opted for the “or else”; his first appearance on British television consisting of presenting a beauty contest with David Vine in 1973. He then took over from Peter West for seven seasons of Come Dancing.
In 1974 he launched his first chat show, Wogan’s World, for BBC Midlands from Pebble Mill. After he had started presenting his Wogan chat show from the Shepherd’s Bush Empire, a former variety theatre in west London, he took a break from breakfast radio. Not all guests were easy: George Best came on in a “footless” condition, and he found David Icke “a ranting demagogue”, but kept his good humour. In 1978 Wogan was his usual ironic self when he appeared on Top of the Pops singing the Cornish folk song The Floral Dance. Surprisingly it reached No 21 in the charts.
Wogan also presented Auntie’s Bloomers (1991-2001), the resurrection of BBC broadcasting fluffs and disasters, leaving when he thought it had no more to offer. By then he was mediating between the corporation and its deeply involved and demanding audience on Points of View (1999-2007).
For UKTV Gold he presented Wogan Now and Then from 2006, and for BBC1 he looked back over the previous 40 years in a two-part programme, Wogan’s Ireland (2011). Last year he teamed up with London cabbie Mason McQueen for Terry and Mason’s Great Food Trip, a culinary tour around Britain shown in half-hour episodes on BBC2. On Radio 2, he was back with a Sunday morning programme, from 2010 until last November.
During his days with Blankety Blank, the Christmas show of 1979 topped the seasonal ratings. He regarded the show as his lucky emblem, since it led to his receiving 10 TV Times awards in succession as most popular television personality; he then asked not to be entered again so that someone else could have a chance. He also had numerous Sony and Variety Club of Great Britain awards, and in 2010 the Television and Radio Industries Club gave him a lifetime achievement award. When Radio 2 turned 40 in 2007, he was voted its Ultimate Icon.
A succession of cheerful books included two memoirs, Is it Me? (2000) and Mustn’t Grumble (2006). The Little Book of Common Sense (2014) shared some general observations along the lines of Radio 2’s Pause for Thought. He was appointed OBE in 1997 and KBE in 2005. Dual citizenship made it possible for him to use the title Sir.
In addition to his regular shows over the years, he was on ready call for the “big occasion” and presented the 1976 and 1984 Olympic games.
Wogan was never touched by scandal. No one had an anecdote that showed him as ill-natured. One of the rare occasions on which he showed that he could put a heavy boot in when required came after a critic in the Times savaged his annual Children in Need fundraising programme (which he presented every year from 1980) by contending that “November is short of ersatz national days, except for the annual BBC Children in Need atrocity, an event better calculated than any other to make me contemplate self-harm.”
Wogan, who was passionately protective of good causes, retorted in Mustn’t Grumble: “Don’t contemplate it, chum, do it. Start with your heart, if you can find it.” He was patently on genuinely easy terms with his own.
He is survived by Helen, whom he married in 1965, two sons and a daughter. Another daughter died in infancy.
• Terry (Michael Terence) Wogan, broadcaster, born 3 August 1938; died 31 January 2016
Dennis Barker died last year
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