Tea with Sir Terry

The higher up the ladder of notoriety you go, the nicer the interviewee tends to be. The rule was cast in iron when I had the honour, privilege and career coup of sitting down for a long and absorbing chat with Irish broadcasting titan Terry Wogan. The news of his death this morning has flooded me with memories of that day. Of his grace and hospitality at his hillside home that summer morning in 2011. Of there being seemingly no ice to be broken between us as he greeted me like an old friend. Of his extraordinary generosity of spirit that made the following Sunday Independent feature a doddle to write up. I left with a jaw sore from bellylaughs and a mind happily processing what incredible people we have in our world. 

As 2016 continues to fell our brightest and best of popular culture, Wogan’s death marks an end to a golden age of Anglo-Irish broadcasting, an era of effortless charm and wit, oak-aged diction and class without the crass. 

To Helen and his family, my sincere condolences. HW

***

ON THE horizon, the turrets and battlements of Windsor Castle are unmistakable from the back garden of Sir Terry Wogan’s home. The sun is warming the Maidenhead fields and Wogan himself is apologising for the distant roar of overhead planes. “We’ll hold it,” he says pointing at the dictaphone and waiting. “What happens is they go over the Queen first and then they come over us.”

He doesn’t say if the pilots at Heathrow make a point of passing over the area’s most eminent residents, but the ubiquitous Wogan would certainly qualify were it the case. Even since his emotional retirement from his vastly adored BBC Radio 2 morning show in 2009, the 73-year-old finds himself unable to stay away from Broadcasting House.

“I’m sort of running around like a chicken with its head cut off,” he says with the first of many soft chuckles, “because ever since I gave up the morning thing life has become much more haphazard. You find yourself doing more casual stuff.” “Casual”, in this case, infers going back to the Auld Sod last summer to shoot Terry Wogan’s Ireland, commuting from there to London every Saturday for his hugely subscribed Sunday radio slot and planning more television documentaries such as an upcoming one about his beloved PG Wodehouse.

“So life still goes on, as it were,” he says of his so-called retirement. He goes on to say that he’s also fitter now than he has been for many years following some long overdue reconstructive knee surgery for an ancient rugby injury. He now walks and swims each day and no longer suffers from the chest and sinus problems exacerbated by years and years of 5.15am starts.

Wogan is not one for regrets though, nor was there ever an early morning when he thought “I could do without this today”. He puts this work ethic down to his education and upbringing – “good old Irish bourgeois and Jesuit discipline”. “It’s my job, it’s what I did. When I used to come across to do Late Night Extra years and years ago in the late sixties, sometimes twice a week, from Dublin, I used to stay with my close friends the Brownings. Although they never said it directly to me, I used to get on their nerves a little bit because I was too cheerful in the morning.”

This self-confessed “cheery disposition” is probably what lifted Limerick’s favourite son out of his brief tenure as a bank clerk in Dublin, into the fledgling RTE studios and then on to the BBC and broadcasting aristocracy. On radio, Wogan created a tone and style all his own, where cheeky prods were exchanged daily between the affable presenter and his legions of TOGs (Terry’s Old Geezers/Gals), who supplied him with comically masterful prose and verse. The Eurovision Song Contest’s descent into gimmickry and farce was also given a similar treatment during Wogan’s 37 years as the Beeb’s commentator/piss-taker-in-chief.

“I came over here and found there was far too much sycophancy going on,” he recalls. “People on the radio saying things like ‘we love your show’ etc. That’s not the way friends behave. Friends are more likely to tell you you’ve got a spot on your nose or you dress like the Pope’s mother or something like that. So that’s what I tried to generate, a kind of mutual badinage between us that was good natured.”

The result was a daily audience that was nearly twice the population of his country of origin, and made Wogan the one to beat in European broadcasting.

He wouldn’t be nearly brash and confrontational enough to make a career of it these days, he feels. “I was following in the footsteps of great broadcasters like Eamonn Andrews,” he reasons. “He wasn’t by any standards a fantastic broadcaster – great commentator and good presenter – but what he had was decency. And the British public responded to that because they knew they were dealing with an honest and straight-forward man. Possibly that kind of thing is a bit devalued now. You have to be of your time and I was lucky.”

Then there’s that voice. In the flesh, without filter or microphone, Wogan’s silken, sing-song purr is still a wondrous thing to behold, even when all he happens to be discussing is how many sugars my coffee requires (“Have some more. Sugar’s very good for you. I like sugar and salt. Stuff like that”). Like Morgan Freeman’s, it has a comforting quality to it, like happening across the theme tune to your favourite childhood TV show, or slipping into a warm bath.

He didn’t get to see any of “Jedward’s foolishness” at this year’s Eurovision, preferring to watch the tennis instead, but did spare a thought for “poor old Graham Norton” (“He has to go to Azerbaijan next year. They’ll probably put him up in a Yurt!”). Another Irishman, I posit.

“Well isn’t it strange? First there was Eamonn Andrews. Then there was Gay [Byrne] for a little bit – he decided to come back to Ireland. Then there was me. And now there’s Graham Norton. Despite the fact that he’s from Cork,” he adds after a comedian’s beat. “Extraordinary.  I’m very fond of him. He’s toned down the more outrageous aspect which I think makes him a family entertainer – for the first few years he was very far from being a family entertainer! But as you say, another Irishman. And I understand Ryan Tubridy’s coming to work for Radio 2, which is great. He’s a good broadcaster. I hope I get a chance to see him.”

Tubridy’s eight-week stint, Wogan ponders aloud, could be the first step in another name being added to the BBC’s venerable Irish lineage, but were he offered a similar deal in Montrose it would be declined. “For somebody like me, having succeeded here, it would be a mistake to go back and try and succeed there. But as far as Ryan’s concerned, it’s only pluses.”

You see, for the UK listener the Irish accent carries no bias, he explains; it’s not a Lancashire accent annoying someone from Yorkshire or a Northern accent annoying listeners from the South etc. It’s also classless, immune from being scanned for details of regionality, school or background. The difference between Wogan and his good friend Eamonn Holmes cannot be detected by your average UK ear, and it is this lack of baggage that sees the Irish in Britain do so well in business, he believes.

Days previously the Queen had visited Ireland and the relationship between the two states was undergoing a welcome revision. For someone with close links to both parties, it must have been especially fascinating for him.

“I got an invitation to go there for one of the dos, but such was the efficiency of whoever was responsible, I received that invitation on Wednesday here for Thursday in Dublin,” he laughs quietly. “Everybody was thrilled. I can only go by the Irish here who of course were thrilled that she received such a good reception. We were all a bit nervous that something stupid would be done, and I’m sure you were in Ireland as well. But I think that’s the best I have seen Her Majesty in terms of how sprightly she was, how she smiled. She did everything absolutely right. It was a triumph.

“Was I proud of Ireland? Well I expected Ireland to rise to the occasion. I felt more proud of the Queen really. She is a very nice woman. She’s a remarkable woman. I have been to dinner with them and I’ve always found her good company. And why wouldn’t the Irish behave well?  Why don’t we expect ourselves to behave well? Why do we think we’re the only ones that history ever happened to?”

Wogan’s insight into the English/Irish dynamic is understandable for a man who, although he won’t admit it, surely helped maintain a positive Irish image when relations were strained. “You always get accused of stage Irish stuff but I’ve never done that. I’ve never apologised for being Irish even though I’ve been here as a popular broadcaster every morning to a huge audience, and after the bombs going off, the IRA campaign in England made it very difficult for an awful lot of Irish people here. But I always made it clear that what was being done was not being done in my name or the name of the rest of the Irish Population.”

He agrees that distance provides perspective on his own people specifically. He’s very conscious of Irish history (“I’m as Irish as the next man; I can get emotional about all sorts of things like emigration and starvation”) and is quick to defend the motherland during moments of scrutiny in these times. Not having ever experienced a boom, it was natural and right, he says, that we gloried in the success, and that while it came to a “sticky end”, Ireland will recover. “I know that’s a facile thing to say because Ireland’s going through a really tough time now but, you know, if you can overcome the Famine and Cromwell, probably you can overcome most things. And the Irish people are resilient and intelligent and well educated – probably a much better educated population than here.”

But like the Longford taxi driver I would meet later in Kilburn or the Carlow man who smiled knowingly at my accent in a Surrey electronics store that morning, Wogan is an example of an Irish national forging a comfortable life in England by ignoring the differences and embracing the similarities. He has said before that the Irish and the English are much closer than the English are with the Scots or Welsh, despite our fraught history. “We also, just like the English, apologise and thank people far too often.”

Nor is begrudgery endemic to Ireland, he insists. Instead, it is the symptom of other small populations such as Scotland, Wales and Denmark, where there exists an attitude of “well I knew his mother” and a sensitivity about their standing in the world. He had braced himself for such an onslaught for doing Wogan’s Ireland but it never materialised, he happily reports.

When I tell him that I can’t work out whether he’s sensitive or thick-skinned, he takes a little longer than usual before answering. “I’d say I’ve learned how to cope with criticism and abuse and I think you have to do that if you’re going to get through life. When you work in radio and television you’re assuming that everybody’s listening, watching and well-disposed to you. You have to; if you began to realise that probably 50 per cent of the audience are thinking ‘what’s that eejit doing’ you’d never do it, would you? I always say that it’s an extremely good training which I got in Ireland in the first place. Those of us who were on Irish television when it started became the first home-grown stars really, and you learned very quickly that everybody can’t bloody love you. It’s an important lesson to learn. People make up their minds about you the minute you walk into the room from the look of you so there’s no point trying to win people over. Not just in television or radio, in life. You cannot be all things to all men.”

Self-deprecation – but never self-pity – is perhaps what’s most likeable about Wogan. I begin one question about his skill as a writer (eight books published to date) by saying I had read Mustn’t Grumble, his laugh-out-loud 2006 biography. “God help us,” he quips. “I’m a tremendously lazy person,” he then sighs. “I’ve never knocked on anybody’s door looking for a job. Anything that’s difficult for me, I just don’t do. It just shows you how deeply trivial a person I am that I only do stuff that comes easily to me! Except golf; I think I’m temperamentally wrong for golf.” When he chats about the ins and outs of his honorary OBE and subsequent knighthood, it’s with a “god knows [it] was more than I deserved”.

You can see what his colleague Zoe Ball meant when she referred to him as “your naughty Irish uncle”. It’s an ever-ready, buoyant humour and a twinkle in the eye, like when he counters: “You get disappointed because you think ‘ah Christ, glamorous, tall, leggy bird, and she thinks I’m her uncle! That’s no good to me!” Another agreeable chuckle when he recalls the array of famous beauties his work brought him into contact with. “But I wasn’t available. Of course, as a man you’re going to respond to beautiful women – and so you should unless you’re a fool – but I’ve never had to slap a super injunction on anybody!”

For all Wogan’s experiences in life, it is family that has provided the most potent memories. Marriage is particularly important as it “helps you think of somebody other than yourself”. In Rathmines in 1965 he married Dublin model Helen Joyce (“We had a big crowd. The oul biddies around there followed us into the church because it was raining, and stood on the pews as we came down”).

Helen gave birth to Alan two years later. Mark arrived three years after that, before Katherine in 1972. His unconventional working hours meant they got lots of his time. Now, addicted to grandchildren, he laments that his own offspring didn’t get cracking earlier. “My eldest grandchild is six. You think, I’m never going to see them get married, and certainly never be a great granddad, so that’s a kind of thing that you think ‘ah it’s a shame’.” The only other drawback, he explains, is the “double worry” that comes when something is wrong with a grandchild and one automatically worries not just for grandchild but for child too.

Luckily, he concludes, he’s an optimist (“in other words, I don’t understand the seriousness of the situation!)” and has that rare ability to concentrate on what he has rather than what he is without. “I tend not to respond to failure; I tend to use it I suppose, but it doesn’t bring me down. I mean I’ve just had the most extraordinary, pleasant life,” he gasps merrily. “And now I’m, as it were, staggering towards the end of it but there you are. Make the most of it while I can.”

Gay Byrne’s going strong, I point out. “Yeah, he’s still battling on I see,” Wogan says with a dry smile. “Poor old soul!”

First published in the Sunday Independent

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Published by

Hilary A White

Dublin-based arts journalist and reviewer, specialising in film, books, music and human-interest stories. Sunday Independent / Irish Independent / State.ie / RTE Radio 1 / Today FM

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