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Sunday 6 January 2008

Wogan deserves all his cash, and a peace prize

As the TV and radio legend is reportedly chased by ITV, Ruth Dudley Edwards praises his professionalism and his role in burnishing the image of the Irish in Britain

IF press rumours are to be believed, ITV bosses are on their knees begging Sir Terry Wogan to accept pots of gold to host a game show even though he's made it clear a condition would be that he'd hang on to his BBC radio and TV commitments.

Our Limerick Lad is paid £800,000 a year by the BBC for Radio 2's Wake Up to Wogan; for his annual mockery of the Eurovision Song Contest he's thought to earn £150,000; plenty flows in from programmes like his recent Wogan Then and Now series on UK Gold; and there'll be a fair few bob from the weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph where he fulminates lightheartedly about cant and doom-mongering and talentless celebs.

What has Wogan got? (A word to prurient, well-informed readers. Yes, I know about the moleskin trousers episode -- of which more later -- but this question is on a higher plane than your low minds.) And why would a 69-year-old who claims to be lazy consider taking on even more work?

The second question is easy. He enjoys broadcasting and is so successful he can do it on his terms. Radio 1's morning show runs from 6.30 to 10, Radio 3's from 7 to 10 and Radio 4's is 6 to 9, while Wogan keeps the gentleman's hours of 7.30-9.30am and takes many holidays, thus leaving ample time to take on extra work that appeals to him.

Money doesn't really come into it with Wogan, a contented family man with no need for yachts or babes. He inveighs against what he considers absurd over-payments to presenters like Jonathan Ross (£18 million for three years), because he believes it shows the BBC is wasting money and "buying talent instead of ideas".

Still, Wogan doesn't undervalue himself. "I don't give a monkey's about people knowing it," he said, apropos his £800,000 radio fee. "Nor do I feel guilty. If you do the maths, factoring in my eight million listeners, I cost the BBC about 2p a fortnight. I think I'm cheap at the price."

There was a recent shock-horror revelation that he was getting paid £8,000 for presenting the annual marathon Children in Need appeal, but it rapidly became clear that the BBC were automatically paying him a standard presenter's fee; while Wogan, who gives an enormous amount of time to charity work, hadn't even realised he was being paid.

Wogan's been an amiable chat show host but was never in the class of Michael Parkinson. So what has he got? Most obviously, there's the irreverent wit that makes millions watch Eurovision in order to laugh along with him (typical comment: "I'm terribly sorry, but I don't believe that anyone in Albania looks like that.") and cheer his bluntness about tribal and political voting. There is, too, his deserved image as a thoroughly decent bloke without arrogance or self-importance. But it's in his radio show that his special genius comes across.

It's not just that he's inclusive in making weathermen and newsreaders and producers and listeners participants in his programme: it's that he brings the best out in them and gives them the confidence to emulate him by laughing at themselves and plunging into surreal fantasies. I still cherish the lorry driver who confided in Wogan that traffic cones were fairies' homes.

Wogan's relationship with his TOGS (Terry's Old Geezers/Gals) revolves mainly around their shared passion for denouncing and ridiculing pretension and stupidity and political correctness in high and low places and on the exchange of genial mutual insults. They also inhabit a shared home for the bewildered, and, as one of their websites points out, may "be recognised by their use of such arcane phrases as 'Is it me?'; the self-pitying, 'I never saw a bar of chocolate until I was 14'; and the perplexed, 'Why did I come upstairs again?"'

TOGS, of course, got great fun out of the discomfiture of their 'Togmeister' when he attracted much ribaldry from the tabloids for sporting on television embarrassingly snug-fitting moleskin trousers. One TOG enquired if he had borrowed the trousers or whether he had got "someone else to fill them in other vital areas" and advised "crossing your legs when in full shot -- if you can do that without wincing. Try something a little more roomy in the which-side-do-you-dress department and try not to sneeze." Wogan laughed it off with his usual ease: "You can't appear on television without a crowd of idiots telling you you look like something the cat dragged in."

We can be grateful to RTE for failing to spot Wogan's potential and thus forcing him to emigrate.

During those decades when the IRA murdered and maimed people on English streets, Wogan's relationship with his listeners was vitally important in keeping the British Irish-friendly. The Togmeister deserves an international peace prize.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards