With all due respect to such distinguished diplomats as Noel Dorr, Joe Small, Ted Barrington and the present incumbent Daithi O'Ceallaigh, Ireland has had no finer ambassador to Britain in the past 35 years than Terry Wogan.
The vintage presenter – he dislikes the word veteran – was recently knighted for his services to broadcasting, but the honour could just as easily have cited his contribution to Anglo-Irish relations in a particularly troubled era of our shared history.
At a time when Britons went to bed after the latest IRA atrocity threatened to renew hostile Irish stereotypes, millions woke up the next morning to the mellifluous but unmistakeably Irish voice of Wogan, whose gift of the gab served to reinforce more positive preconceptions of the Irish – of wit, charm and good humour.
Some, of course, felt that Wogan went too far, viewing his cheerleading for the British entry as the BBC’s Eurovision compere as the act of a Quisling taking the Queen’s shilling, confusing his professionalism with a lack of patriotism.
The bouquets and the brickbats, you sense, are water off a duck’s back to Wogan. As well-upholstered as the leather armchair in which he is comfortably ensconced on the fifteenth floor of the Heights St George’s Hotel, across the road from the BBC studio where he has just broadcast to 8.5million listeners, he is on top of the world, ma.
Unlike other broadcasters, there is no debrief, no post-mortem on this morning’s show, nor is there any preparation for tomorrow’s programme, for Terry lives on his wits, or on his wit. His broadcasting philosophy is that if you need a safety net, you’re in the wrong job. “I go in without a thought in my head every morning.” Instead, a chauffeur waits in a limo outside to take him to a lunch appointment at Locatelli.
Wogan is a model interviewee, on time and in no hurry. He converses freely and frankly without the flippancy that others have commented on. Deeply tanned, dapperly dressed, perfectly polite, he comes across as a consummate professional, yet natural and personable. The most striking thing about him is his complete lack of male aggression or self-assertion, in voice or in demeanour.
From the impressive thatch on his head, that would put many a white-washed cottage to shame, to the signet ring with the Wogan crest on his little finger – “of course, I shall have to have my own escutcheon now,” he says – Terry exudes the sleekness of success, the discreet charm of the Irish bourgeoisie.
Like his fellow knight Sir Anthony O’Reilly, Terry is a Belvedere boy, the product of one of Ireland’s top public schools. Just as he cheerfully admits to being a West Brit, as much a child of the BBC Light Programmes as of the Jesuits, he also happily acknowledges without apology his bourgeois status, for he is free of middle-class guilt. “I’m an effete, urban Irishman,” he says. “I was an avid radio listener as a boy, but it was the BBC, not RTÉ. I was a West Brit from the start.”
That is why he could never have replicated Gay Byrne’s iconic stature on RTÉ. “Although born in Limerick, I’m a kind of child of the Pale. I think Gay was able to communicate better with the country people than I would be. I’m too metropolitan. I think I was born to succeed here, I have much more freedom than I had in Ireland.”
In his latest autobiography, Mustn’t Grumble, Wogan recalls the rumpus when Gaybo presented him with the award of Ireland’s greatest living broadcaster. An entire show on RTÉ was given over to people questioning what right he had to call himself an Irishman, never mind an entertainer. “And people still ask me if I’d fancy going back to Irish radio and television.”
You might be tempted to think what a cushy life Wogan has, pocketing more than £800,000 a year for blathering into a microphone for a couple of hours a day. But then you remember that he is 68, an age when usually a weak bladder is the only thing likely to drag you out of bed at 5.30 in the morning. And just as society places a premium on the ability to kick a ball, so it does on the charisma required to entertain the masses. “Bigger audience will always bring higher rewards,” he says simply.
If Tourism Ireland had its own honours system, Wogan would surely have been ennobled 10 years ago with the five-star Order of the Shamrock for his BBC travel series, Wogan’s Island. To a soundtrack by Enya and a backdrop of Donegal’s rolling hills and sunlit coastal waters, Terry wished the viewer Cead failte roimh, welcoming them to his island, his Ireland, “a land and a people I love”.
He brought an obvious affection to his role but also a sense of detachment, that of the emigrant, but also that of a BBC broadcaster, one attuned to British sensibilities, who could say with confidence the words: “To a British eye and ear….”
He describes Wogan’s Island as his view of Ireland and the Irish, made without much reference to map or method and with no message in mind. What he discovered canvassing the country was the enormous self-confidence to be found there, a sea-change in attitude.
“Maybe it’s spurious but I’d rather see it than the kind of inferiority complex we used to have. Maeve Binchy caught it, how in the sixties we were always so proud if Irish people achieved anything, like Eamon Andrews or ‘one of the Beatles is a Catholic, great, one of the tribe’. We don’t do that any more.
“It may be youth, that element is huge particularly in Dublin. It’s the most exciting city in Europe. It thinks it’s Barcelona, people doing the Ramblas in the rain.”
There was another happy congruence in the making of these programmes and the coming of peace to the North. Wogan was filming in Derry when he saw soldiers swapping helmets for berets.
Wogan moved to England in 1969, just as the Troubles erupted in the north. His accent was never an impediment, but an advantage for he carried no badge of class or region. Not to say that it was always easy. “I’ve had the odd letter but not enough to build an edifice of prejudice. I’ve found nothing but acceptance. It hasn’t been as easy for people in less privileged positions. When the Birmingham bombs went off I had to come up the following morning with a cheerful Irish accent. I didn’t feel any guilt because things being done in the name of Irish freedom were not being done by me or anyone I knew, or by the generations of Irish people who contributed to this country. All I felt was an Irish voice must be hard for some people. I had the odd death threat, but I think that was only from discerning listeners,” he ends with a quip to lighten the tone, the instinct of a man who will not suffer too much seriousness.
“Some people told me I made a difference by being a familiar Irish voice. That would be very important to me if I did that. I never did it consciously but I never saw any reason not to be Irish.”
On the day we meet, Wogan’s listeners have been up in arms with Blair over his latest travail, road tolls. Is the presenter as familiar, I wonder with Bertie Ahern’s troubles? “No, I don’t keep up with Irish politics. There are lots of Irish people I know who’ve been here longer than me who still get all the Irish papers. I don’t see Ireland as home because home is where your family is. This is home to me. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve ever lived in Ireland.’
That said, on a recent trip back to Limerick to accept a lifetime achievement award from the city, he met the Taoiseach and was suitably impressed. “He’s an extraordinary man, he’s the Taoiseach yet he has an extraordinary common touch. Everyone says, hello Bertie. He has no sense of his own importance and that is probably his most endearing, greatest quality.”
Terry hadn’t been back in his native city in a long time and, put up in Ireland’s tallest hotel, “it was just amazing too see the Shannon as I’d never seen it before, sweeping down through Limerick, and to see the differences in the town.”
Wogan being Wogan, he is not above a little mockery, however. In Mustn’t Grumble, he recalls visiting Vancouver, “surely one of the most beautifully situated cities in the world. It reminded me of Limerick, with scenery.”
But Limerick is getting there, he tells me, and he dislikes the media portrayal of his city. “It’s become a soft target. Every town in Ireland has a drug problem and its gang problems.” That said, when it comes to Limerick’s previous image problem, as exposed in Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, he sides with the author. “Limerick people were a little oversensitive about that. That kind of poverty was indigenous to Ireland up to the ’70s. You could walk down O’Connell Street and people would be begging money from you. Two hundred yards away were the worst slums in Europe.”
It is with this memory in mind that Terry speaks with heartfelt pleasure and pride at Ireland’s new prosperity.
“Go to Doonbeg and Lahinch. As little as 15 years ago frankly the environs were depressing, scabby old guesthouses, awful lean-to shacks, everything slate-grey. Now they’re all peppermint colours, purple, scarlet, mustard. These people think they’re in the Mediterranean. It’s people saying we’re better, we’re coming up now.”
When Terry and his wife Helen sold their holiday home in Spain after the area became overdeveloped, they considered buying in Ireland, but in the end they opted for the south of France, because they wanted somewhere with a more marked contrast in lifestyle and culture. “The craic,” he says, “is a word that fills me with horror.” He loathes the compulsion to turn a night of genial conversation into a compulsory sing-song, and how the Irish insist on getting themselves and everyone else stocious before they even see a menu. “Only in Ireland is the pint of stout regarded as a digestif.”
“I prefer Kerry to Cornwall, the scenery is better and it’s less crowded, but despite what people think Ireland is a bit like England. We felt that when we wanted to be in Ireland, places like Kenmare, West Cork, south Kerry and Clare, we would want to be in our garden at home.
“My favourite place would be Kenmare. It has the two best hotels in Ireland, the Park and the Sheen Falls. There are lots of hotels in Ireland that think they’re wonderful but they’re not. Those two are; they’re five-star hotels. The golf club is great and the Kenmare River. On the right-hand side is the Ring of Kerry and you can see the Skelligs on the way to Waterville Golf Club. On the other side is Gougane Barra, a very old part of Ireland and at the very end are some tropical gardens, full of plants from all over the world, planted by Cromwell’s doctor. That’s my favourite part of Ireland.”
Wogan is also excited at the development of the Ritz-Carlton hotel at Powerscourt in Co. Wicklow, for his father is from Enniskerry. “Gordon Ramsay’d better not try his effing and blinding at his restaurant there for the Irish don’t like cursing,” Terry says. “He’ll have to learn to say feck.”
Looking back over his career, he is proudest of Children in Need, the fundraising telethon he started in 1980 and which has raised £300million. He doesn’t just present it, he is on the board of trustees and raises money all year round. He missed Ireland play England at Croke Park because he had to be at the Carling Cup Final in Cardiff, collecting a cheque for £70,000 for the charity. As chairman of the London Irish Rugby Supporters Club, it saddened him to miss the occasion but that it happened at all filled him with hope. “Rugby at Croke Park, that to me is the end of it, we mustn’t keep thinking we’re the only people with history, the only people oppressed.”
He enjoys the hundreds of witty, wry and mocking emails he receives from his listeners, so different in tone from the sycophantic herograms lesser presenters seem to seek. Describing the ideal fan mail he is looking for on his show, he could be offering a portrait of his own personality. “I’m looking for wit, originality, a keen eye for the ridiculous, lateral thinking, a laugh at life.”
He’s proud too of Wogan, the chat show that he presented live, for three nights a week, for almost nine years, to viewing figures that the BBC would die for today.
And of course, Eurovision. It’s a little known fact but the first one Terry presented was at the Gaiety Theatre in Dublin in front of only 500 people. There were probably more on stage for the Riverdance interval performance at the Point all those years later.
As for retirement, he’s currently negotiating a two-year extension to his contract, but he won’t go on for ever. “I don’t want to be caught on the beach when the tide comes in. People are still broadcasting in their eighties and they shouldn’t be. My wife and family are there to tell me when my time is up. I’ve said to Helen, when you see me lose that half-beat, the little bit of sparkle…”
His father worked till he was 67, and put in a seven-day week. “I think he put me off hard work. If things didn’t come easy to me, I didn’t do them. I’ve taken risks but I have no capacity for taking pains. If you find radio or TV difficult you shouldn’t be doing it.”
This interview first appeared in Cara, Aer Lingus’s in-flight magazine, in 2007. Martin Doyle is assistant literary editor of The Irish Times