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date: 25 January 2020

Wogan, Sir Michael Terence (Terry)free

(1938–2016)
  • Gillian Reynolds

Sir Terry Wogan (1938–2016), by Terry O’Neill, 1985

Terry O’Neill/Iconic Images/Getty Images

Wogan, Sir Michael Terence (Terry) (1938–2016), broadcaster, was born on 3 August 1938 at Cleary’s Nursing Home, Elm Park, Limerick, the first of three children of Michael Thomas Wogan, grocery manager, and his wife, Rose, née Byrne, daughter of Frank Byrne of Dublin. At the time of his birth registration the family lived at 18 Elm Park, Limerick. His younger brother, Brian, was born in 1944, followed later by a sister, Rosie.

Wogan’s education began in 1943 at Ferrybank, a preparatory school in Limerick run by Salesian nuns, continuing at Crescent College, a Jesuit school where he obtained honours in six subjects in the intermediate certificate plus a distinction in Latin. In 1956, on his father’s promotion to head branch, the family moved to Dublin, where he and Brian were accepted into the élite Jesuit school, Belvedere College. Previous intermediate certificate success put him into its honours class and he played rugby for the school’s first team, touring England and Scotland in major public school tournaments. His leaving certificate results were disappointing. When the Royal Bank of Ireland asked Belvedere to recommend career candidates he was interviewed, sat an exam, and became one of twenty (mainly Protestant) trainees. After induction he was posted to Dublin’s Cornmarket branch, where the manager was an old Belvederian. Wogan joined the Old Belvederian Rugby Club, playing for the third XV. After six months he was transferred to Dublin’s Phibsborough branch, where he worked for the next four years.

Wogan had grown up reading English comics (such as the Beano, Dandy, Wizard, and Radio Fun) sent from Dublin by his godmother, Auntie May, who also instilled his lifelong love of books. Radio was a passion from childhood. He listened mostly to the BBC, preferring Workers’ Playtime, Mrs Dale’s Diary, The Goons, and Hancock’s Half Hour to Irish radio. In 1963, however, he replied to a newspaper advertisement by Radio Éireann for announcer/newsreaders. Out of several thousand applicants, he was one of six accepted for training. Subsequently given a three-month on-air trial, he combined it with his day job at the bank. When offered a permanent post he instantly resigned from the bank. At that time Radio Éireann began transmission at 8am with news and music; closed at 3pm; reopened at 5pm with children’s programmes, news, features, concerts, and plays; and closed at 11 pm. The duty announcer was responsible for keeping it sounding seamless. After a year he was made senior announcer for what, by then, had become Radio Telefis Éireann (RTÉ), adding television to his duties. Hosting a popular quiz, Jackpot, he became even better known nationally.

While working at the bank Wogan had met Helen Joyce, a fashion model (b. 1936), daughter of Timothy and Helen Joyce of Rathmines, a Dublin suburb. They were married on 24 April 1965 in her parish church, Our Lady of Refuge, Rathmines, with his brother Brian and her younger sister Miriam as witnesses. The newly wed Wogans set up home in Killiney, a seaside resort with views of Dublin Bay, and remained there for four years, sharing a love of music, theatre, travel, good food, and the company of close friends. Their marriage would last lifelong.

Wogan always claimed that if something did not come easily he did not make the effort. His career shows another side: how hard he could work at any job he wanted. Shortly after his wedding he began writing exploratory letters to British commercial television networks and the BBC, sending a tape of his radio work to the BBC’s assistant head of gramophone records, Mark White. White offered him Midday Spin on the Light Programme: discs played in the London studios, Wogan presenting from Dublin. More BBC radio work followed. He began travelling to London to broadcast while keeping up his regular shows in Ireland. In 1967 he sent White a tape of his new RTÉ show, Terry Awhile, featuring live telephone conversations and record requests. White immediately auditioned him for Late Night Extra, a new show for Radios 1 and 2 to be part of the BBC’s radical re-launch of radio later that year. The audition was a success, as was the show. At first he continued to combine it with RTÉ work, flying to London on Wednesdays, returning to Dublin on Thursdays. RTÉ now objected. He could fulfil the BBC’s six contracted weeks but, after that, must work solely in Ireland. He immediately resigned from RTÉ but kept his freelance work. The Wogans remained resident in Ireland as Helen was pregnant again. Their first daughter, Vanessa, had been born with serious heart defects, never left hospital, and died at three weeks old. Wogan later wrote that the experience destroyed his Catholic faith. Their first son, Alan, was safely delivered in Dublin in 1968.

Meanwhile, work increased. In London, Late Night Extra was expanded to two nights. In Ireland, Wogan took on new sponsored radio shows. He hosted his first BBC television show, a beauty contest. For BBC radio he stood in for Jimmy Young, a major star, for a month in 1969, then was offered a six-week contract for a new two-hour afternoon show across Radios 1 and 2. At this point he and Helen, with baby Alan, moved permanently to England, renting a small furnished house in Buckinghamshire. He continued commuting to Dublin every second weekend, recording sponsored shows for RTÉ. Press attention was favourable. Listeners loved him. From 1970 he also began to co-present Come Dancing on BBC TV. The same year he became the BBC radio commentator for the Eurovision Song Contest, a role that later expanded to television and would continue until 2008. His style was conversational, affectionate, genially cynical, and hugely popular. A year later he was earning enough to give up the sponsored shows in Dublin but continued to present an Irish radio request show and write a weekly column for the RTÉ Guide. In December he won his first award as Radio 2’s top radio disc jockey. Public appearances at events around the UK were rewarding both financially and professionally. In 1972 he took over Radio 2’s breakfast show, now renamed Wake Up To Wogan. By this time he and Helen had bought their first house in Bray, Berkshire, and had two more children, Mark (b. 1970) and Katherine (b. 1972). They had also accepted their first invitation to Buckingham Palace.

Throughout the 1970s the conflict in Northern Ireland would dominate the news, but Wogan claimed not to have received a single letter, condemnation, or abuse for his nationality. His pleasure in sharing thoughts and fantasies with his radio audience never failed or faded. Whether imagining dances of virgins on the roof of Broadcasting House, making fun of BBC bigwigs, or inventing nicknames for workmates, his listeners loved it. In October 1976, while he was live on air, the wife of the BBC director-general Charles Curran telephoned with a request. Could he play something by Mozart, for the director-general’s birthday, ‘In ten minutes time if you can’. Mozart was not on the playlist but the Gramophone Library responded rapidly. Curran was delighted.

Wogan’s BBC television commitments already included Eurovision, Come Dancing, Pop Score, and The Year in Question. Now he added television presentation of the 1976 Olympic Games. In 1984 he covered the Olympics from Los Angeles, taking Helen and all three children to share the experience. In 1992 he led coverage of the Barcelona Olympics. Meanwhile he ensured television stardom by, in 1979, launching a new early evening Saturday game show, Blankety Blank. He made it a ratings winner by sharing with viewers the essential nonsense of the concept. The BBC historian Jean Seaton described his gift as ‘ironic panache’ (Seaton, 243). The same year, in partnership with Jo Gurnett, previously his agent at MAM, he set up his own agency, JGPM, and published his first book, Banjaxed, a compendium of his radio fantasies and audience responses. It was a best seller. Listeners started a fan club, the TOGS, Terry’s Old Geezers (and Gals), who promptly became part of his on-air discourse.

In 1980 the BBC launched its first-ever charity television marathon, Children in Need, with Wogan as lead host, a role he retained for twenty-five years. In 1982 he also began a Saturday evening BBC One chat show. It drew over 10 million viewers with a guest list ranging from show business stars to prominent politicians. He was still doing his weekday radio show plus, for television, the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1984, The Royal Variety Show, and, for his own film company, a documentary on French wine. Bill Cotton, head of BBC Television light entertainment, now offered him a bigger commitment, a thrice-weekly, live, late show. It meant giving up the radio show, a risk, but one he accepted. Wogan began in 1985 and proved a huge success. When Michael Grade became BBC Television’s director of programmes in 1986, he daringly re-scheduled it to 7pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, significantly boosting BBC One’s ratings. In 1992, however, it did not survive managerial change. Nevertheless, retaining his other BBC Television commitments, including Points of View (1999–2008), he was, after an absence of seven and a half years, warmly welcomed back to radio.

‘Radio stimulates the brain, the imagination, it provokes reaction’, Wogan wrote in his autobiography, Is it me? (151). The new Radio 2 breakfast show, Wake Up To Wogan, was now in competition with breakfast television and commercial radio. He brought back listeners and reached new ones. The ratings rose steadily to a record 7 million and over the years added another million. On BBC Television he continued to present the Eurovision Song Contest, Children in Need, Points of View, and, among other shows, an astutely witty documentary, Wogan’s Guide To The BBC, in 1982. His great gift was to talk to unseen millions as if each listener or viewer were a lifelong friend. His on-air converse drew unselfconsciously on wide reading and a particular appreciation of such Irish writers as James Joyce and Brian O’Nolan (pen name Flann O’Brien).

Wogan’s private life was always centred on his wife, their family, their Buckinghamshire home in Taplow, and a close circle of Irish and English friends. His autobiography, Is It Me?, was published in 2000 with a sequel, Mustn’t Grumble, in 2006, two of his fourteen books published between 1971 and 2014. He retained a lifelong passion for rugby and golf, relishing good food and wine while, as occasional sharp comments revealed, nursing grievances against anyone he considered a fraud. In his time he was the BBC’s highest earner although, as he also brought it vast numbers of listeners and viewers, he once reckoned he actually cost the BBC ‘about 2p a fortnight’ (Hello!, 30 May 2006). Having been made an OBE in 1997, he took British citizenship in 2005 and was knighted KBE that year.

Wogan’s decision to resign from the daily Radio 2 breakfast show in December 2009 was a shock. He had won dozens of awards, including a place in the Radio Academy’s hall of fame, and great national respect. His final show was packed with tributes, including one from the prime minister Gordon Brown. Another new venture, however, lay ahead. Weekend Wogan began in February 2010, a live two-hour Radio 2 Sunday morning programme with music and guests. It lasted until November 2015. His commitment to BBC Television’s annual Children in Need telethon remained staunch. He regarded it as one of the best things the BBC did, became a trustee of the charity, and over the years, as the BBC director-general Tony Hall said, ‘raised hundreds of millions of pounds’ (Times, 1 Feb 2016). In 2015, however, he was too ill to front it.

Wogan died of cancer at his home in Taplow, Buckinghamshire, on 31 January 2016, surrounded by his family. Every newspaper carried obituaries, the Daily Telegraph’s dubbing him ‘purveyor of irony to the masses’. That day Radio 2’s breakfast show became a tribute, lovingly assembled by the longstanding producer Alan Boyd. The British prime minister David Cameron and the Irish president Michael D. Higgins saluted him. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Joan Burton remembered his role in Anglo-Irish relations during the Northern Irish ‘troubles’. His funeral was private. A memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey on 27 September 2016, broadcast live on Radio 2. Western House, Radio 2’s headquarters, was subsequently re-named Wogan House in his memory.

Sources

  • C. Reid, Action stations (1987)
  • S. Barnard, On the radio (1989)
  • P. Donovan, The radio companion (1991)
  • T. Wogan, Is it me? An autobiography (2000)
  • B. Cotton, Double bill (2000)
  • T. Wogan, Mustn’t grumble (2006)
  • S. Street, British radio (2006)
  • Daily Telegraph (8 Sept 2009)
  • J. Seaton, Pinkoes and traitors (2015)
  • Daily Telegraph (31 Jan 2016); (12 Feb 2016)
  • The Times (1 Feb 2016); (6 Feb 2016)
  • Daily Telegraph (1 Feb 2016); (3 Feb 2016)
  • The Guardian (1 Feb 2016); (5 Feb 2016); (8 Feb 2016)
  • The Independent (1 Feb 2016)
  • WW (2016)
  • personal knowledge (2020)
  • private information (2020)

Archives

Film

  • documentary, light entertainment, interview, and performance footage, BFI NFTVA

Sound

  • documentary, light entertainment, interview, and performance recording, BL NSA

Likenesses

  • T. O’Neill, photograph, 1985, Getty Images [see illus.]
  • obituary photographs
marriage certificate
British Film Institute, London
death certificate
British Library, National Sound Archive
birth certificate
(1849–)