Terry Wogan: Out of shot at last?
Terry Wogan is officially retired, but there’s no dozing by the wireless for the former BBC radio personality. He has just published his first novel, a semi-autobiographical, semi-satirical look back at his early days as a lowly Dublin bank clerk
“I was lucky to find something in life that my limited talents allowed me to do” Photographer: Lorenzo Agius
Unlike the wife of the newly retired bank manager in Terry Wogan’s first foray into fiction, “who knew that he would be under her feet and lifting his feet for the vacuum cleaner”, Helen Wogan has no such problems.
Her husband retired from his daily morning radio show in 2009. However, as well as presenting a two-hour Sunday morning show on BBC Radio 2, Wogan (77) has just introduced Proms in the Park in front of 40,000 people in Hyde Park for the 20th year, finished a 20-part travel documentary, is about to debut on Have I Got News for You, “and here comes Children in Need. And I’ve just had a book of short stories published. Retirement suits me.”
Wogan started out with the Royal Bank of Ireland, and he describes Those Were the Days, the story of a humble bank clerk’s rise to the heady heights of bank manager, as “figments of imagination and youthful experience, tied very loosely together by what might have been”. But it reads like anti-nostalgia – there but for the grace of God, a sigh of relief at a life not lived.
There is little sentiment or dewy-eyed romanticism in Wogan’s portrayal of the Ireland of his youth. However, his early life clearly still exerts a fascination, evidenced by the weight he gave it in his two autobiographies.
“Maybe because we only remember the days when the sun shone, my memories of boyhood and young manhood in Ireland are only happy ones,” he says. “There was plenty of romance, but anyone who walked around with an expression of ‘dewy-eyed romanticism’ was an eejit. As I grow older, distance lends enchantment to the view.”
This is Wogan’s 10th book, but, for such an inveterate talker and listener, his best work is unscripted.
“Writing for me is like being on the radio, just talking to myself. In my early days in Radio Éireann and RTÉ, I learned that reading off a prepared script made for a stilted performance. I decided to rely on my wits and I’ve been making it up as I go along ever since. It’s risky, but it’s why I prefer live radio and television.”
What books have fed his imagination or shaped his sense of humour? “I’m president of the PG Wodehouse Society and share Evelyn Waugh’s opinion of Wodehouse’s mastery of language and plot. At Swim-Two-Birds by Myles na Gopaleen is still the funniest book I’ve ever read.”
Wogan once rejoiced as Ireland embraced a new self-confidence. What is his take on the bust?
“I did tell my Irish friends that from my limited experience of economics in Britain, every boom is followed by a bust. Some people expected the Celtic Tiger to roar forever. I admire Ireland and its people far more now for the magnificent way they have faced economic hardships and, unlike others, overcome them . . . Everywhere’s got scenery. It’s the people that make the country.”
Padraig, one of his characters, lives to 101 and has “a childlike indifference to the Grim Reaper”. Is Wogan’s extremely active retirement a way of sticking two fingers up to mortality?
“I was lucky to find something in life that my limited talents allowed me to do,” he says. “I’ll go on doing it until I know that it’s time to stop. I’ve never wanted anybody to lead me to the exit. If I’d stayed in the bank, they’d have put me out to grass years ago.”
Reflecting on his career, “the BBC’s Children in Need Appeal [which has raised nearly £1 billion over 35 years] will always be the most important thing I will ever do,” he says. “It and my old morning radio show will always be closest to my heart.”
Wogan has probably been Ireland’s finest ambassador, not to the court of St James but to the court of British public opinion, representing a positive image of Irishness – of wit, charm and good humour – at a time when IRA atrocities were putting relations under great strain. Did he ever feel his Irishness was a liability? Did it wound him when some Irish accused him of going native?
“I’ve always declared my pride in being Irish; I and all my family have Irish passports,” he says. “Begrudgery is an unattractive trait.”
As for the travails facing Wogan’s beloved BBC: “The BBC has always been caught between a rock and a hard place, expected to broadcast programmes of the highest quality and, at the same time, satisfy popular taste. It has done so brilliantly, forever in the face of political sniping. Now it faces justifying a license fee while, with new technology, viewing habits are changing, particularly among younger viewers.
“The BBC is the measuring rod by which all other broadcasters are judged.” he says. “If its role is diminished, the loss to the public will be irreparable.”
How would he compare contemporary chat show hosts such as Graham Norton and Jonathan Ross to his own interviewing style? “Graham and Jonathan are entertainers, masters of ceremonies, not interviewers. It’s light entertainment, not ‘chat’, and all the better for it.”
Wogan once proposed as his epitaph: “He looked like he didn’t know what he was doing”. Has he improved on that? “What about: ‘Out of shot at last’?” he suggests, jesting till the end.
Those Were the Days is published by Macmillan