Terry Wogan: Most popular Irishman even in times of strife

His genial, self-deprecating manner and mellifluous voice contributed to a career that was extraordinary, both in its longevity and popularity

Sir Terry Wogan in the BBC studio in central London during his final breakfast show on Radio 2 on December 18th, 2009. Photograph: BBC Handout/PA

Sir Terry Wogan in the BBC studio in central London during his final breakfast show on Radio 2 on December 18th, 2009. Photograph: BBC Handout/PA

 

Terry Wogan, who has died at the age of 77, was an Irishman who became one of Britain’s best loved broadcasters.

His genial, self-deprecating manner and mellifluous voice contributed to a career that was extraordinary, both in its longevity and popularity.

Wogan was Britain’s favourite Irishman at a time in the 1970s when the IRA bombing campaign made it difficult for the Irish in Britain.

He was born in Limerick on August 3rd, 1938 and attended Crescent College. Though always affectionate towards his native city, he was not nostalgic. “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,” he said in an interview with The Irish Times in 2010.

“The dinginess of the streets around King John’s Castle was awful, but then it was endemic. 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.”

When he was 15, his family moved to Dublin and he finished his education at another Jesuit run institution, Belvedere College. “My father was always slightly bemused by my success. Although he knew that I had reasonable intelligence, he always thought that I was a little bit lazy,” he said.

He started work as a bank official with the Royal Bank of Ireland before joining RTÉ as a continuity announcer in 1963. He read the news on Radio Éireann and later on RTÉ Television.

But he was looking at bigger horizons, and sent audition tapes to the BBC. Like Gay Byrne, he spent a few years working between Britain and Ireland, before moving to London in 1969 with his wife and son.

He stood in for Jimmy Young on his morning show on Radio 1 in July 1969, and a few months later he presented the afternoon show, broadcast simultaneously on Radio 1 and Radio 2.

Most popular

He was for several decades one of the most popular personalities on both radio and television in Britain.

When he was presenting the television game show Blankety Blank for four years from 1973, audiences exceeded 20 million. His weekday breakfast programme on Radio 2 (1972-84 and 1993-2009) reached eight million listeners.

Quite certainly some of the many millions who watched the Eurovision Song Contest, which he covered on radio and then TV from the early 1970s to 2008, did so more for his facetious commentaries than for the music.

Wogan secured his status as a British audience-magnet with his eponymous television chat show, which was screened up to three times a week for a decade from 1982. His many guests included Rock Hudson, Dolly Parton, Raquel Welch, Lee Marvin, Mel Brooks and, famously, a drunk George Best.

The BBC’s decision to axe the chat show in 1992 in favour of an ill-fated soap, Eldorado, was one of the few reversals in a glittering career. He was awarded an OBE in 1997 and a KBE in 2005. Dual citizenship made it possible for him to use the title “Sir”.

Irishness

“When the Birmingham bombs went off, I had to come up the following morning with a cheerful Irish accent,” he told Cara magazine in 2010. “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.”

By his own admission he lived a charmed life. “For some people it can be very unfair,” he told the Guardian.

He was blessed with a “sunny disposition” Gay Byrne suggested, but there was tragedy in his life too. He and his wife Helen’s first child, Vanessa, died in infancy in 1966 as a result of a heart condition.

While his wife took solace in her Catholic faith, Wogan’s faith deserted him. “I didn’t flee to God. I was extremely resentful of fate, of life and of the unfairness of it.”

He was critical of the domineering influence of the Catholic Church on the Ireland he grew up in and the emphasis on sin and death. “When we were growing up in Ireland the biggest sin, apart from sex, was vanity,” he once said. “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.”

A succession of cheerful books included two memoirs, Is it Me? (2000) and Mustn’t Grumble (2006). The Little Book of Common Sense (2014) shared some general observations along the lines of Radio 2’s Pause for Thought. He also became a novelist late in life. Those Were the Days was published late last year and is a semi-autobiographical take on a bank clerk in Ireland who rises to become a bank manager.

Wogan once proposed as his epitaph: “He looked like he didn’t know what he was doing”.

In October, he gave one of his last interviews to Irish Times assistant literary editor Martin Doyle, where he suggested an improvement to his original epitaph. “What about: ‘Out of shot at last’?”

He is survived by Helen, whom he married in 1965, two sons, Alan and Mark, and a daughter Katherine.