Obituary: Sir Terry Wogan


His genial manner and Irish blarney made Sir Terry Wogan a much-loved broadcasting institution.

He was a master of the live event, whether hosting his chat shows or compering Children in Need.

His jocular manner, and flights of whimsy, helped him build an audience of eight million for his radio shows.

An easy-going man off air, as well as on, he remained remarkably untouched by fame, fortune or any whiff of scandal.

Michael Terence Wogan was born in Limerick on 3 August 1938, the son of a grocery shop manager.

His upbringing was strongly religious. At the age of eight he was sent to Crescent College, a school run by Jesuits where discipline was harsh.

"We were brainwashed into believing," he later said, describing losing his faith at 17 as a relief.

His father's promotion in 1953 saw the family move to Dublin where he attended another Jesuit school and developed a love of amateur dramatics and rock'n'roll.

Image caption,
He carved out a long-running career on BBC radio

He admitted that he had not really applied himself at school. "I only ever did enough to pass exams," he said.

"I never had any capacity for preparing for anything. That's why I'm so lucky to be in a job where I make it up as I go along."

Wogan left school in 1956 and briefly worked in a branch of the Bank of Ireland, close to Dublin's cattle market, where he later recalled having a lot of fun with a jolly crowd.

"We used to fire wet sponges at each other across the bank concourse."

Immediate hit

But radio lured him away from his ledgers and he got a job as a newsreader and announcer with Irish broadcaster RTE after answering a newspaper advertisement.

He spent his first two years working on news and documentaries but then moved across to light entertainment.

He did a stint as a radio DJ before being chosen to host Jackpot, a quiz show that proved immensely popular on RTE during the 1960s.

However, the show was dropped in 1967 and Wogan approached the BBC to see if they would give him some work.

Image caption,
His interview with Larry Hagman launched his chat-show career

He made his debut on the Light Programme, now Radio 2, and in 1969 was asked to stand in for Jimmy Young on the mid-morning show.

This led to a regular afternoon slot on Radio 1 which, because of financial restrictions, shared some of its output with Radio 2.

By 1972 Radios 1 and 2 had completely split and Wogan took over the breakfast show on Radio 2 which had been presented by John Dunn.

He became an immediate hit. His whimsical style suited an early-morning audience wanting to be woken gently with a bit of banter and easy-listening music.

'Hellish future'

By this time his name had been linked to the BBC's coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest. He covered the extravaganza for radio in 1971 and would provide three more radio commentaries in the 1970s.

But it was for his television coverage - his first was in 1973 - that he became most famous. From 1980-2008 he was the indispensible television voice of the contest for millions of listeners.

His acerbic descriptions of both contestants and hosts, together with his often-expressed irritation at the way groups of countries always voted for each other, chimed with a British audience who have never taken the contest seriously.

Image caption,
He was rarely away from the nation's TV screens

"All I've gained by watching the Eurovision Song Contest over the years," he once said, "is a numbing of the prefrontal lobes.

"The whole thing has become an outstanding, grandiose load of rubbish."

In 2001, he famously referred to the two Danish hosts, Soren Pilmark and Natasja Crone Black as "doctor death and the tooth fairy".

"Who knows what hellish future lies ahead," he said as coverage began in 2007. "Actually, I do. I've seen the rehearsals."

However, none of this cynicism dented his popularity with the contest organisers who, in 2008, paid him the honour of welcoming him personally to the show by name.

It was at the beginning of his 28-year run with Eurovision that Wogan began hosting his chat shows on BBC TV.

Figure of fun

One series of What's on Wogan? ran during 1980 and the following year, a one-off show featuring an appearance by Dallas star Larry Hagman helped to raise Wogan's profile even more.

Between 1982 and 1992 he hosted Wogan, a chat show that was eventually being broadcast three evenings a week.

It often made the headlines. Actress Anne Bancroft completely froze on air while being interviewed; conversely footballer George Best, who had evidently dined a little too well before his appearance, wouldn't keep quiet.

His most pithy exchange was probably that with the former TV presenter, David Icke, who had claimed to be the "son of the godhead".

When the audience started giggling Wogan gently said: "They are not laughing with you, they are laughing at you."

Image caption,
The Eurovision Song Contest brought out his acerbic wit

Icke later claimed the appearance on the show had turned him into a figure of fun.

At the same time Wogan was hosting the quiz show, Blankety Blank, as well as anchoring the BBC's charity appeal, Children in Need, which was first broadcast in 1980 and which he continued to host after his retirement from regular broadcasting.

In 1992 the BBC dropped his chat show - Wogan claimed they wanted the slot for the ill-fated soap, Eldorado, although, in truth, the sheer number of shows meant the quality of the guests had become diluted.

Instead he returned to the Radio 2 breakfast show after an absence of nine years.

Gentle humour

His listeners welcomed him back with open arms and enthusiastically embraced what became a very interactive programme.

In-between the music, Wogan would read out emails and letters sent to him by listeners who often adopted pseudonyms such as Lucy Lastic and Hellen Bach.

These would send Wogan off on rambling flights of fancy or encourage on-air banter with his producer, Paul Walters.

He exchanged witticisms with his newsreaders, which often turned into running jokes. Many of these exchanges were collected on CD to raise money for Children in Need.

Image caption,
His banter with producer Paul Walters was a highlight of his breakfast show

Listeners particularly treasured his repartee with Lynn Bowles, the station's traffic and travel reporter, who hailed from Splott, near Cardiff.

Wogan and "the Totty from Splotty" often read limericks sent in by listeners. These were usually cut short by the end of the second line, but not before the risqué innuendo in the final part had been well telegraphed.

The show was aimed at an older audience, whose members became known as TOGs, Terry's Old Geezers or Terry's Old Gals.

Both the Queen and Margaret Thatcher were reported to be regular listeners and Wogan was invited to attend the former prime minister's funeral.

Whimsical musings

But his gentle humour also caught the ear of people far younger than the core Radio 2 audience so TYGs or Terry's Young Geezers or Gals were born.

"It's silly old childish fun," he said.

In 2007 he was announced as the Ultimate Icon of Radio 2 in a vote to mark the station's 40th birthday.

Wogan announced his retirement from his breakfast show in September 2009, making his final regular appearance three months later.

But he was back in February 2010 to host a live show on Radio 2 on Sunday mornings, initially from the BBC Radio Theatre.

Image caption,
He continued to host Children in Need after his official retirement

He made a foray into the recording studio in 1978 with a version of the Floral Dance, which he sang over a backing by a brass band.

He also published a number of books starting with Banjaxed in 1979. The title is a word he claims to have introduced to the UK from Ireland.

In later years Wogan wrote a column for the Sunday Telegraph which contained his whimsical musings on some of the absurdities of life.

He was given a knighthood in 2005. Because Ireland was not a republic when he was born, he held British as well as Irish citizenship and so was entitled to the honorific Sir.

For a man with such a high profile, Wogan's career was remarkably free from scandal. He married his wife Helen in 1965 and the couple enjoyed a quiet family life.

"If you don't go looking for trouble, it won't find you," he once said. "It's no fun being well known any more."

Reports that he was earning £800,000 a year during the peak of his career barely caused a ripple, and were dismissed by the man himself.

"If you do the maths, factoring in my 8 million listeners, I cost the BBC about 2p a fortnight. I think I'm cheap at the price."

He was not regarded as a greedy man and raised millions of pounds for charity.

Even the revelation, in 2007, that he had been paid for hosting Children in Need, failed to raise many eyebrows.

Wogan was typically self-deprecating about his own success.

"A lot depends on luck, and being in the right place at the right time; which was certainly true in my case."

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