Wogan, Sir Terry (1938–2016), broadcaster, was born Michael Terence Wogan in Limerick city on 3 August 1938, the elder of two sons of Michael Thomas Wogan, who managed the local branch of the upmarket grocers Leverett and Frye, and Rose Wogan (née Byrne), a bookkeeper. His father was born in Enniskerry, Co. Wicklow, the son of a slater; his mother was born in Belfast and reared in Dublin, the daughter of a sergeant in the British army. They met while working together in the Leverett and Frye branch in Grafton Street, Dublin.
Early life and career
After attending a preparatory school in Limerick run by the Salesian nuns (1943–6), Terry moved to the Jesuit-run Crescent College, Limerick. He achieved an excellent intermediate certificate (with a distinction in Latin), which he attributed to the fear inspired by his teachers’ readiness to use corporal punishment. He also excelled in inter-school debates, at times partnered by the future politician Desmond O’Malley (1939–2021). A keen reader, he was kept well-supplied with parcels of books, comics and magazines sent by his godmother ‘Aunt May’ who managed the Veritas bookshop in Dublin. When Terry was fifteen his father was promoted to national manager of Leverett and Frye and the family moved to Dublin, where they lived on Ballymun Road in Glasnevin. From September 1954 Terry went to Belvedere College, and enjoyed his time there, performing in its Gilbert and Sullivan productions, and playing rugby as a prop forward for the school’s first team, as he had done at Crescent. He put less effort though into his academic work and received a disappointing leaving certificate.
After leaving school in 1956 he joined the Royal Bank of Ireland in Dublin, briefly working in its Cornmarket branch and then for four years in Phibsborough. During this time he joined the Rathgar and Rathmines Musical Society (1958–63), where he displayed some talent as a singer and an actor. Although he enjoyed his time in the bank, where customers and staff provided him with a fund of stories for later in life, in 1961 he responded to a Radio Éireann (RÉ) newspaper advertisement for a continuity announcer – he had long been a keen radio listener, particularly to the BBC’s Light Programme station. There were thousands of applicants but he managed to secure an interview in which he exaggerated his competence in Irish and foreign languages and was offered a place on an evening training course for announcers. During this he impressed Denis Meehan (d. 1969), RÉ’s head of presentation, who recognised his potential and looked to develop it by giving him rigorous training in microphone technique, insisting on clear intonation, phrasing and delivery. Meehan also passed on something of his mischievous and surreal sense of humour, much influenced by the writings of Flann O’Brien (qv), and these foundations of professionalism and irreverence would become the hallmarks of Wogan’s broadcasting style.
Some part-time broadcasting work followed and in October 1961 he quit the bank to become a full-time announcer/newsreader with RÉ, based in the General Post Office (GPO). The work was varied: he read the news, weather forecasts, stock exchange prices and the cattle market report, as well as introductions for lectures, plays, quizzes and anything else that was required, including outside broadcasts for the visit of President John F. Kennedy to Ireland in 1963 and the state funeral of President Seán T. O’Kelly (qv) in 1966. There was also some work as a disc jockey for RÉ’s light entertainment department, notably on sponsored programmes and Hospitals’ requests. He found this particularly satisfying, enjoying the opportunity to ad lib off listeners’ cards and letters in between records. In 1964 he moved into television, taking over from Gay Byrne (1934–2019) as the host of Jackpot, a popular Telefís Éireann quiz. By the time Wogan married on 24 April 1965 he was one of the best-known figures in Irish broadcasting, and his wedding to the Dublin-born model Helen Joyce at the Church of Mary Immaculate in Rathmines attracted a large crowd of well-wishers and spectators.
In June 1965 Jackpot was replaced by Quicksilver hosted by Bunny Carr (1927–2018), and the newly married Wogan approached BBC television for work. The controller of BBC 2, David Attenborough, believed that with Eamonn Andrews (qv) already hosting several BBC television shows, the channel had no need for another Irishman. From September 1966 Wogan was though offered work on BBC Light Programme, such as presenting Midday spin (1966) and the prestigious Housewives’ choice (1967), which he broadcast from Dublin. Robin Scott, the recently appointed controller of Light Programme, recognised his talent but noted ‘he’s got to get rid of a bit of the Irishness and then he will be very good indeed’ (Hendy, 437). Wogan went to England to present a weekly edition of BBC Radio 1’s Late night extra (1967–9), commuting between Dublin and London. During these years he also presented the RTÉ televised coverage of the Rose of Tralee festival (1968–70). When RTÉ insisted that he would have to choose between it and the BBC, he chose the latter and moved to London in 1969.
BBC Radio 1969–84
Wogan impressed while standing in on BBC Radio 1’s Jimmy Young show in summer 1969, and that September was offered his own weekday afternoon programme, which ran for three years. He built up a steady following and in April 1972 became host of the Terry Wogan show in BBC Radio 2’s breakfast-time slot. As he grew in confidence, his laconic, informal style took shape. The BBC, gradually shedding its strait-laced traditions, gave him considerably more freedom to develop than he would have had at RTÉ, which was dominated by a conservative, civil service ethos suspicious of spontaneity and originality. The Terry Wogan show became enormously popular, drawing audiences of eight million listeners by the late 1970s, and he won numerous awards such as radio personality of the year (1974) and the radio award of the Radio Industries Club (1974, 1976 and 1978). Immensely versatile, he commentated on the Eurovision Song Contest for BBC radio in 1971 (when it was held in Dublin) and from 1974 to 1977, and also presented the corporation’s radio coverage of the Olympic Games in 1976, 1984 and 1992. His popularity even survived the release of his version of the Cornish folk song ‘The floral dance’ in 1978; it reached number twenty-one in the UK charts.
While his morning radio show provided a light-hearted mixture of music, talk and humour, it was unlike anything else on the airwaves. Wogan disliked rehearsals and rarely prepared for his shows, relying instead on his natural curiosity, empathy and self-deprecating wit to engage the listener. He had little use for the platitude and gratitude that featured on other shows, but instead looked for letters from listeners that were amusing and original, with an eye for the ridiculous; he was particularly keen on those that poked fun at himself or his colleagues. These were the starting points for his own anecdotes and monologues, delivered in a warm, friendly voice and suffused with gentle irony, clever wordplay and surreal humour. Informed by a wide range of cultural reference, from the high to the low, with writers such as Flann O’Brien and P. G. Woodhouse featuring strongly, the result was often more off beat and subversive than the usual radio fare. In less skilled hands the formula could have been disastrous, but with Wogan it almost invariably worked. He carried his broad reading and keen intelligence lightly, treating his audience as friends and equals. His style was much copied, but none of his imitators could carry it off with the same effortless panache.
Although blessed with a cheery disposition, there was a strong introspective side to his character: he described himself as an essentially shy person who as a child was repeatedly told by his parents to be more outgoing and to push himself more. Later in life he admitted that ‘in many ways I’m just not suited for showbusiness … [it has] forced me to do so much that is against my real nature, and often I’ve suffered torture because of it’ (The Irish Times, 12 Sept. 2009). The ability to combine the confidence of the extrovert with the sensitivity of the introvert allowed him to connect with a wide range of listeners. When interviewed, he was assured and amusing but carefully guarded his privacy, preferring the well-honed anecdote to any real self-revelation. He reconciled himself to fame rather than welcomed it and avoided showbusiness parties, much preferring to have a quiet meal with his wife and children, who were always at the centre of his life. He readily admitted that he did not live to work and took time to savour the material rewards of success, enjoying a beautiful house in Buckinghamshire, good food and wine, frequent games of golf, and regular family holidays in villas in Spain and France.
Television presenter, 1973–92
During the 1970s Wogan also established a strong presence on television, notably as the commentator on the Eurovision Song Contest (1973, 1978, 1980–2008). The contest’s kitsch exuberance and bizarre acts provided him with ample material for mockery: introducing one show, he remarked ‘Who knows what hellish future lies ahead? … Actually, I do. I’ve seen the rehearsals’ (Guardian, 5 Dec. 2008). His commentaries sometimes upset the Eurovision’s more serious supporters, but for many others his deadpan asides were the main attraction. While refusing to take the contest seriously, he nonetheless enjoyed it as a great festival of the absurd and, when it was held in Birmingham’s Indoor Arena in 1998, was deeply proud to co-present it to a worldwide audience of 500 million viewers.
Other television work included Lunchtime with Wogan (1972) on ITV and the BBC’s Come dancing (1973–9). As host of the BBC comedy panel game show Blankety blank (1979–83), his easy banter with celebrity guests provided the main attraction. Although many critics (and some BBC executives) dismissed the show as drivel, it could still draw over 20 million viewers. By 1979, ten years after arriving at the BBC, Wogan was the corporation’s most popular presenter on both radio and television, winning the TV Times ‘favourite male TV personality’ in ten successive years (1979–88), and he remained the most consistently popular broadcaster in Britain for the next thirty years. He had the rare distinction of appearing twice on BBC Radio 4’s Desert island discs (1988 and 2012). In 1980 he co-presented the BBC’s charity appeal programme Children in need and did so every year until 2014. He threw himself into the task, engaging in auctions and sponsored activities that raised over £800 million in total by 2014. His wry style generally prevented the programme from descending into the cloying worthiness and self-congratulation of much celebrity fund-raising. He became life president of the Children in Need charity organisation, and as a trustee was closely involved in dispensing funds to deserving causes, which he regarded the most important work he had ever done.
In 1982 he began to host the television chat show Wogan, which ran on BBC 1 on Saturday nights until 1984. Increased television work meant that he reluctantly gave up the Radio 2 breakfast show in 1984. Between 1985 and 1992 Wogan was broadcast three times a week at 7pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and attracted strong audiences. Wogan sought to converse rather than simply question, but his gentle raillery was not always appreciated by his more serious or egotistical guests and could result in some awkward encounters. The show’s frequency meant that the quantity of guests often exceeded the quality and it is mainly remembered for embarrassments such as interviews with an inebriated George Best (qv) or a delusional David Icke. By the start of the 1990s it was losing viewers and attracting regular press criticism: where once he had been lauded for his wry self-deprecation, Wogan was now accused of facetious self-indulgence, reinforcing his belief that neither praise nor censure should be taken too seriously. He had wanted to bring the show to an end in 1991 but was persuaded by the BBC to continue until the set was used for the ill-fated soap opera Eldorado (1992–3). The unceremonious way in which Wogan was eventually ended in 1992 rankled with him for some time.
Return to radio
Afterwards he returned to BBC Radio 2 to present the breakfast show, Wake up to Wogan (1993–2009). He was happy to be back on radio, which he had always considered a superior medium, arguing that ‘radio stimulates the brain, the imagination, it provokes reaction. Television, by providing the picture to go with the thought, stunts the imagination, makes it redundant’ (Is it me?, 124). Wogan picked up where he had left off in 1984, employing the same gentle, meandering style. As he aged, he revelled in the cosy old-fogeyness of many of his listeners, whom he christened ‘TOGs’ (‘Terry’s old geezers or gals’); favourite musical choices included 'Hit me with your walking stick’, ‘Do you know where I’m going to?’ and ‘Wake me up before my cocoa’. With its catchphrases and stock characters, the show provided a refuge from the brashness and bustle of modern life. Wogan’s rambling musings and unforced humour eased people gently into their day in a manner far removed from the faux chumminess and wacky inanity of other breakfast shows.
Wogan’s wit though was not always gentle: when puncturing pretentiousness or pomposity it could be barbed, as in suggesting that the histrionic interviewing style of some huffy BBC news presenters was driven more by ego than journalistic rigour. While he regarded the BBC as the finest broadcasting organisation in the world, he regularly took digs at its management for their slavish reliance on polls and focus groups. When selected to deliver the 1995 Radio 2 lecture, he insisted that broadcasting was not about ‘worrying yourself sick whether you’re super-serving the bourgeoisie and under-cutting the minorities … It’s about … talent and instinct and creativity and spontaneity – all the very antithesis of planning and polling’ (Musn’t grumble, 165–6).
By April 2006, Wogan was the highest-paid BBC radio presenter, earning £800,000 a year. He received an honorary OBE in 1997 and a knighthood (KBE) in 2005 for his philanthropic work and services to broadcasting. In 2005 he also became a British citizen (while retaining his Irish citizenship) which allowed him to use the title ‘Sir’; he was later appointed deputy lieutenant of Buckinghamshire (2007). As part of the celebrations of the fortieth anniversary of BBC Radio 2 in 2007, he was chosen as the station’s ‘ultimate icon’. In 2009 he was made an honorary freeman of the City of London, was inducted into the Radio Academy Hall of Fame, and received a lifetime achievement award at the British Comedy Awards.
Influence and identity
For much of his career Wogan was probably the best-known Irish person in Britain. He began broadcasting just as the Northern Ireland Troubles began, and on several occasions had to do so immediately following news reports of IRA bombings in English cities. After events such as the Birmingham bombs of 1974 he was aware that some listeners might react badly to a bantering Irish voice, but insisted that ‘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 Britain’ (Belfast Telegraph, 1 Feb. 2016). He claimed never to have received abuse for being Irish and put this down to British tolerance and common-sense, although in 1994 a letter bomb was addressed to him at Broadcasting House; he was on holidays at the time and it was successfully defused.
He was heartened to receive regular messages of support from Irish people living in Britain, who took considerable solace from hearing him on the BBC. He neither played up his Irishness, nor attempted to hide it, but let it emerge naturally, his speech peppered with Hiberno-English words such as ‘eegit’, ‘gobdaw’ and ‘banjaxed’. At a time when the Irish were often portrayed in the much of the British media as either perverse idiots or violent bigots, Wogan was clearly neither and his urbane charm did much to refute negative stereotypes. Proud of his Irish origins, he remembered his years in Dublin, and even more so in Limerick, with affection, noting ‘Limerick never left me, whatever it is, my identity is Limerick’ (Limerick Leader, 28 Sept. 2007). He was particularly proud of the city’s great rugby tradition and a keen supporter of the London Irish, Munster and Ireland rugby teams; his joy when announcing Munster’s historic victory over the All Blacks in October 1978 was clearly evident. Among the honours he most cherished were an honorary Doctor of Literature degree from the University of Limerick (UL) in 2004 and the freedom of the city of Limerick in 2007; he also sat on the UL board. He regularly returned to Ireland to visit family or attend rugby matches and hosted the Terry Wogan golf classic in Dublin (1987–90), Limerick (1991, as part of the Treaty 300 commemorations) and Waterford (1992).
He was though rarely sentimental about Ireland and in his memoirs recalled its endemic poverty, cultural insularity and religious hypocrisy. He lost his catholic faith in his late teens and thereafter was contentedly agnostic. Even as a child he was dimly aware that Ireland could be a cold house for the poor and vulnerable: he recalled the looming presence of a large workhouse near his family home in Limerick and ‘the Blue School, from which issued the occasional small crocodile of pale little children. I didn’t know whether they were orphans, abandoned, illegitimate, but they weren’t like us. There was something sad about them, something pitiful … The memory of those children remains with me’ (Musn’t grumble, 94).
From the time he moved to England in 1969 he regarded that country as home. He argued that the Irish had rather more in common with the English than many were prepared to admit and was critical of the ghetto mentality of some compatriots who lived in England. During his commentaries on the Eurovision Song Contest, his close identification with the UK irked some Irish viewers, and in an interview on a BBC chat show in 1981, his former RTÉ colleague Frank Hall (qv) accused him of turning his back on his Irish heritage. When in 2005 Wogan was given the award of Ireland’s ‘greatest living entertainer’, an entire RTÉ radio show was given over to discussing if he could be truly described as Irish. His sardonic world view had little time for chauvinist nationalism, regardless of its country of origin, and criticisms of his ‘West Brit’ loyalties rather underestimated his spirited independence. He disliked bowing and scraping and made some pointed remarks about royalty, admitting that he found Prince Philip to be a great bore and noting that ‘the trouble about singing priests is the same problem we have with the royal family: nobody ever tells them to shut up’ (Musn’t grumble, 240).
After his chat show ended he maintained a significant presence on television, hosting major BBC programmes such as the outtakes collection Auntie’s bloomers (1991–2001) and Points of view (1999–2007), featuring viewers’ opinions; his BBC output also included Terry Wogan’s Ireland (2011) and Wogan on Wodehouse (2011). During the 2000s he spread his television appearances across various programmes and channels, some of which worked better than others: the rather frantic daily magazine show co-hosted on Channel 5 with Gaby Roslin, The Terry and Gaby show (2003–4), jarred with his laidback style. He found time to write two volumes of autobiography, Is it me? (2000) and Mustn’t grumble (2006), and the short story collection Those were the days (2015), a series of fictionalised autobiographical anecdotes from his early life. His radio show also spawned several books such as Banjaxed: varicose utterances by himself (1979) and Terry Wogan’s bumper book of TOGs (2011). With the singer Aled Jones he recorded the Christmas singles ‘Little drummer boy’ (2008) and ‘Silver bells’ (2009), which reached numbers three and twenty-seven respectively in the UK charts, the proceeds donated to Children in Need.
He presented his final Wake up to Wogan on 18 December 2009, believing it was best to quit while still popular, and became emotional as he thanked his listeners for being friends who had allowed him into their lives and enriched his own. In February 2010 he returned to Radio 2 to host the live weekly two-hour Sunday morning show Weekend Wogan until his final broadcast on Remembrance Sunday (8 November) 2015, by which time he had advanced prostate cancer. He died on 31 January 2016 at his home in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, survived by his wife and three children Alan, Mark and Katherine; his first-born daughter Vanessa died from a heart defect aged three weeks in 1966.
He was buried privately, but on 27 September 2016 hundreds of friends and colleagues paid tribute to him during a memorial service held at Westminster Abbey, which was broadcast live on BBC Radio 2. On 16 November 2016 Radio 2’s Western House was renamed Wogan House, and in June 2017 a life-size bronze statue by Rory Breslin was unveiled at Harvey’s Quay in Limerick.
Wogan’s importance extends far beyond the realm of popular broadcasting. While some Irish immigrants undoubtedly experienced prejudice and discrimination, the story of twentieth-century Irish immigration to England is largely one of successful integration. Wogan’s reception in England is testament to the fact that much of the time the Irish and English rubbed along together rather well. This occurred at all levels of society but Wogan stands out for his enduring popularity and sure-footed negotiation between the varying strands of his identity. No other Irishman of his time was held in such esteem by so many people in Britain, and none had such a pervasive and benign influence on Anglo–Irish relations.