Terry Wogan interview: 'I never thought of Ireland as home'
In this interview first published in 2010, the broadcaster said being ‘England’s favourite Irishman’ can be a tricky role, but as he prepared to spend a little more time in Limerick he was not doing regret.
Beaming a smile at the doorman of the Connaught Hotel in London’s Mayfair, Terry Wogan limps gingerly into the foyer, still bearing the pain of a recent operation on a knee damaged decades ago on a Belvedere College pitch. “I think I spent a little too long with the physiotherapist yesterday. God, it was like spending time with Torquemada,” he says with a grin and a wince, before finding a spot where he can stretch his leg.
Wogan stood down before Christmas from his BBC Radio 2 morning show, a decision greeted with a sense of loss by many of his eight million-strong audience, Europe’s biggest. But the 71-year-old Limerick man has already moved on, with a new Sunday-morning radio show before a live audience, “a strangely old-fashioned” experience, in the words of the London Times.
His departure from the morning show is the reason why he is now limping. “It gave me the opportunity of getting the knee done,” he says. “Part of the reason I haven’t got it done was because I didn’t have the time. I never felt right about taking more than taking two weeks at a time because you tend to lose contact with your listeners. Two weeks was never enough time to have the operation.”
For one who is the master of nostalgia, Wogan, now 71, seems to have little time for looking backwards in his own career choices. “I have always been able to change. I have made bigger changes than this. I left Ireland to come here on a wing and a prayer, so it is not necessarily the biggest change that I have ever made.
“I also left the morning show to do eight and a half or nine years of telly. I have done it before,” he says.
Four decades on from his arrival in London, Wogan is still in demand in a business where fame is more usually fleeting.
“Obviously, there are various offers coming in for television, but I am, sort of, in a wait-and-see mood,” he says. “I don’t want to commit myself and find myself just as busy as before, you know. I certainly don’t want to commit myself to a daily TV show. I record Perfect Recall[a quiz show], but we can rattle three of those off in a day, so that’s fine.
“I love doing the Sunday show. There will be other things, but I don’t want to be too busy.” He envisages, he adds, a documentary here, a one-off programme there.
Long-established by then on radio, Wogan presented a BBC television show intermittently from 1980 and then three times a week between 1985 and 1992, though the decision to drop it in favour of the ill-fated soap, Eldorado, still rankles. In any event, Wogan believes the best days of the chat-show are over.
“What has happened with the [retirements] of Michael Aspel, and Michael Parkinson, lately, the traditional talk-show has gone,” he says. “I suppose what you have now – and it was started by Jonathan Ross and in America with Jay Leno and others – is a situation where the presenter is at least as popular a personality as the people he is talking to. So it doesn’t become a formal interview. It is a bouncing back and forward.
“In America, the guy or the girl comes out and the first question is: ‘Hey, it’s a great movie you’ve got.’ So they get the plug out of the way first. I remember when I was interviewing various people, like Bette Davis, she could never understand why we had this convention where you didn’t plug it obviously and you didn’t plug it immediately.” He mimes Davis’s drawl. “She said: ‘When are you going to mention my book?’ In a sense, it is more honest in America. We are pretending, or we used to pretend, that it was a serious interview.
“The fact is, you were very foolish if you thought that anybody in film, television, theatre was going to tell you anything that they don’t want you to know. It is a different thing with somebody like Paxman harassing a politician. That’s expected. If you start harassing people in show business and try to get the truth out of them, after about six weeks you won’t have a guest. Nobody will go on and do your show.”
Practised interviews himself, Wogan humorously offers a tour of some of his best-remembered TV moments: the night George Best (“bless him”) was drunk on set; Anne Bancroft’s catatonic silence; Vanessa Redgrave storming off. “I don’t remember saying anything, but maybe [she had] a call of nature, or maybe she just decided that she was fed up talking to me, which is more likely,” he says, with a chuckle.
He cannot resist, however, a barbed swipe at Redgrave, “whom I watched bow and scrape in the most awful manner before Prince William [at the Bafta awards] this week. This woman is an anarchist and a republican. She has been all her life, and there she is bowing and scraping to Prince William and getting a huge round of applause for it.”
Unusually for one in showbusiness, Wogan – blessed with a happy and long-lasting marriage to his wife, Helen, and with three children and four grandchildren – is immensely secure in himself, though self-deprecatory to a fault.
“I am lucky that I never had any problems with self-esteem,” he says. “When we were growing up in Ireland the biggest sin, apart from sex, was vanity. It has always been a source of amazement that anybody came out of my generation in Ireland with any self-esteem whatsoever, but we did.”
In his case, his foundation is work: “I have never been out of work. I have never had the traditional insecurity of our business. I have never started at the bottom of the bill in Claxton and had to crawl my way up to the top.That is what breeds insecurity. That is why actors are so insecure.
“It doesn’t matter how successful an actor they are, they are always thinking about [work]. I am sure that Gwyneth Paltrow will be sitting in the flat today and wondering ‘Why has she got that part, and not me?’, while we would perceive her as enormously successful.”
When the BBC “decided to build this village in Spain [ Eldorado] and dispensed with my services” [on TV], “the radio wanted me back and I was able to re-establish very quickly my standing with the audience. So I have never had a period where I have had to worry about where the next penny is coming from, or where the next job is coming from, and I have never, never had to say to anybody in my life, ‘Gis a job’.
“That is why you will look at some people on television here, and possibly in Ireland, and you say, ‘Why don’t they stop now?’ – but it is probably because they can’t bring themselves to because they remember the bad old days.
“That is what you have got to do. You have got to fold your tent like an Arab and silently steal away before somebody suggests that the exit sign is over there.”
He has done it repeatedly, leaving popular panel programme Blankety Blankand his radio programmes at opportune times. The only time he got it wrong and failed to read the runes was with the TV chat-show, and that, he has said previously, happened only because he was making so much money from it.
For years, Wogan has been “England’s favourite Irishman”, although once, during a one-off chat-show on the BBC in 1981, he was accused by the late Frank Hall of abandoning his Irish heritage. In Wogan’s eyes, however, he was the one who had to come on air with an Irish accent in the hours “after innocent English people had been killed in a bomb in a Birmingham pub, but I never tried to deny that I was Irish. I never tried to pretend that I was anything other than what I was. I tried to point out that it was not being done in my name, or in the name of any Irish person that I knew – but they were tough times.
“They were tough times for the average Irish person, although the British being as phlegmatic as they are, and in a sense as tolerant as they are, everybody in England knew an Irish person that they liked, or who was their neighbour.”
Now with more time on his hands, Wogan intends to spend some more, but limited, time in Ireland and his “much-maligned” home town, where he sits on the board of the “really terrific” University of Limerick. But England is home.
“The only thing that used to drive me mad – the next generation doesn’t do it, but the previous generation did – was when they’d say: ‘Are you going home for summer?’ This is home. Once I left Ireland and had the family here, I never thought of Ireland as home. I am very proud to be Irish and I don’t see any reason to change, but this is home,” he says. “We used to love going back there. What we really loved was meeting friends again.
“My problem has always been that I left Limerick when I was 15, leaving behind all my friends for Dublin. I made new friends in Dublin, but I left Dublin when I was 30, so there are two lots of friends that I left behind. That kind of leaves you a little bit bereft.”
“When you get older, re-establishing new friends is . . . ,” he adds, almost with a tone of regret. He stops, and says, with a laugh: “It is my wife who makes my friends for me now.”
Terry Wogan does not do regret, at least not in public.
Occasionally, his picture of Ireland is rose-tinted, a little romantic, or tinged with memories of the poverty he witnessed but did not have to endure in the Limerick of Angela’s Ashes in the 1950s.
“A lot of Limerick people got terribly upset about all of that, but I remember boys going to Leamy’s [National School] in their bare feet, and I remember where Frank McCourt set Angela’s Ashes. The dinginess of the streets around King John’s Castle was awful, but then it was endemic,” he says. “There were beggars on O’Connell Street. Some of the worst slums in Europe were 400 yards away. So it wasn’t just Limerick, it was everywhere.”
From a distance, he witnessed Ireland’s near-bankruptcy in the 1980s, and the growth of the 1990s, “but then I noticed that the Irish began to develop a slight superiority. They would come over and say: ‘What’s the matter with people over here. Would they not go into the euro? Why don’t they have a bit of sense about them? For God’s sakes, they don’t know what they are doing here.’ All that sort of thing.
“I remember going across – and I am not being wise after the event – and saying in the time I’ve been in England there has been three booms, and three busts. Every boom is followed by a bust. Mind you, we didn’t know that it was going to be such a huge bloody bust. But the Irish didn’t believe that. They thought that the boom would continue indefinitely and now they are reaping the whirlwind.
“But, on the other hand, I feel, peculiarly, that the Irish psyche is better geared to cope with this than people here, phlegmatic and all as the British are. The Irish attitude is, ‘Well, we saw the two days’, as Brendan Behan said.
“In the same way that this country is in an insurmountable – almost – financial position, so is Ireland. But it will pass, and I think the Irish psyche, personality, attitude to life, in a funny way, leaves them better able to cope.
“Maybe I am taking the romantic view. Maybe I am.” He pauses, and then adds: “I have taken the optimistic view. I am an optimist anyway. I have to believe that Ireland will recover. There will be pain, of course.
“I think it is probably a salutary lesson. It’s a salutary lesson. In Ireland it will be particularly painful, because the Celtic Tiger was such a model, such a terrific success, more so than anywhere else.
“It was Europe’s success story, and what happened? They could have been, perhaps, more circumspect but, for God’s sake, if you can borrow the money and there is not too much pressure . . .” He shrugs.
With the UK facing a general election, Wogan has already been offered – and turned down – a Piers Morgan-style interview with one of the British political party leaders, though he will not say which one.
“[Morgan] is another Irishman, of course,” Wogan says. “Yeah, I think he is from Offaly. He is not like Biffo. No no, Piers Morgan is Irish. You ask [Richard] Corrigan. Piers Morgan is Irish. He looks Irish, an Irish face.
“What a man. Extraordinary, isn’t it? Obviously, he has great talent as a journalist. He has developed this extraordinary personality by dint of sycophancy, and there he is interviewing his ‘friend’, Gordon Brown.” He shakes his head.
Should Brown have done the Morgan interview? “Sure, why not? If you are as desperate as Gordon Brown, why wouldn’t you? The latest I hear is that David Cameron is going to be interviewed by Alan Titchmarsh.
“What a game! It is not a trend I would applaud really. Why don’t they give these interviews to somebody like Paxman? I know Paxman is abrasive, but you could have David Dimbleby, or Jonathan Dimbleby. But, you know, otherwise these interviews – I presume – are seen by the public as window-dressing. That’s all they are.”
Wogan has always stayed out of politics, but he clearly has political views. The conversation drifts momentarily on to Peter Mandelson.
“He’s like a pantomime villain,” he says. “An actor has been lost there. In a sense, you have got to admire him. He’s got the elbow twice and now he is Lord Mandelson.”
Wogan’s view of Brown is less charitable: “[There he is] standing up as the acme of probity and what he is going to do and what his plans are for the economy. The man has wrecked the economy and sold the gold, wrecked the pensions, and he is still standing there and nobody voted for him.”
“And I think because Cameron and the Tories are so wet, I think you will end up with a hung parliament,” concludes Wogan, a fan of proportional representation, with a degree of anticipation.
By now, the clock has well and truly over-run, though Wogan is no hurry to leave and, when he does, he times his exit to perfection as a black chauffeur-driven Bentley glides around the corner to pick him up.
Seeing him leave, a taxi-driver breaks into a beaming smile and hails, “Hallo, Sir Terry, it’s just coming, it’s just coming. Nice to see you, Sir Terry.” People just cannot seem to stop being helpful to him.
Born in Limerick. Beloved in Britain.
BORNLimerick city, August 3rd, 1938. Moved to Dublin when he was 15.
EDUCATIONCrescent College, Limerick, then Belvedere College, Dublin.
FAMILYMarried to Helen, has three children and four grandchildren.
CAREERLong and distinguished. Started work as a bank official before joining RTÉ. Left to join BBC and has been the UK’s most consistently popular broadcaster for 40 years. Has presented radio and television programmes, including British coverage of the Eurovision Song Contest and Children In Need. Left his early-morning radio show before Christmas, but is already back on an air with a Sunday show.