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Sunday 13 September 2009

Togmeister shows why he’s not any old geezer

LAST Monday morning, just after the 8am news, a cloud of melancholy descended on eight million or so listeners to BBC Radio 2’s Wake up to Wogan.

Sir Michael Terence ‘Terry’ Wogan, Order of the British Empire, Knight of the British Empire, Deputy Lieutenant of Buckinghamshire, Freeman of Limerick, Honorary Doctor of Laws of the University of Limerick and 71-year-old Togmeister to the millions who call themselves Togs — Terry’s Old Geezers/Gals — announced his retirement from his radio show. “If you’ll pardon me,” he said gently, “I’ve a little bit of news of my own. If the mail is anything to go by, most of the listening population have spotted a report that next year, I'm going to turn into Chris Evans. And I hate to tell you, but it's true.”

The whole announcement was vintage Wogan, affectionate, appreciative, self-deprecating, decent and optimistic.

“I was hoping to break it to you, my loyal listeners, more gently. I wanted to be the first to tell you. It's the least I owe you, for endless years, countless hours of morning companionship, friendship, good humour, and laughter. Your loyalty and support has been a beacon of love in my life.

There hasn’t been a morning, no matter how dark and drear, that I haven’t had a smile on my face and a song in my heart at the prospect of your company, your marvellous mail, your wit and wisdom.” He was leaving “while we’re still in love’’, urged them to welcome and support his successor and reassured them he’d still be fronting the charity telethon Children in Need and would begin a weekend radio show in the New Year. “So, this is not goodbye, it’s not even au revoir. As they used to say when I was a lad, ‘See you later, alligator . . . in a while, crocodile’.”

The Togs didn’t let him down. Nor he them. He prefaced the first email he read out with, “You no sooner open your mouth than someone puts his foot in it. Mahat Macoat has written: ‘Dear Mr Evans, it’s so good to welcome new blood. The old duffer’s finally gone’.” For what has made Wogan a broadcasting legend is that he broke the convention that listeners were sycophants and encouraged them to become the kind of friends who make fun of and abuse each other genially and creatively.

Into his cheerful web, Wogan has woven producers, newsreaders, weather forecasters and traffic reporters, who have all been encouraged in between records to contribute to his programme’s melange of nostalgia, wit and surrealism — typically, sightings of BBC management disporting itself on the roof oblivious of the grazing herd of wildebeest on the street below, with disposable producers being hurled from the parapet, the Director General making human sacrifices and the sensual Dance of the BBC Virgins to which no one ever turned up.

Wogan’s inspiration is Flann O’Brien, for whom under the influence of Denis Meehan of RTE, his first great mentor, he had developed a passion. His listeners contributed to the fun in their thousands. When Wogan’s Banjaxed, an account of his programme’s conceits, topped the bestseller list in 1979, the comedian Bob Monkhouse remarked: “Only Terry Wogan could get away with using his listeners as unpaid scriptwriters and then sell their letters back to them in a book.”

And only Terry Wogan could get away with presenting himself as a rather unworldly, happy-go-lucky chap to whom good fortune just happens, while the truth is that through intelligence, hard work and canniness, someone who could have been a modest success in RTE became a giant of British broadcasting. No other presenter would have been let get away with turning the Eurovision Song Contest into a joke by relentless mockery of what he calls its “sheer grandiose foolishness”.

The University of Leicester is about to confer on Wogan an honorary degree for his “outstanding contribution to both charity work and British culture”, and it is not exaggerating. It was Wogan’s steely determination as well as his persuasive powers that made the BBC’s Children in Need the huge success it has been over three decades.

It is the way in which he spiced with the best of Irishness the Englishness he fell in love with as a boy listening to the BBC and reading English comics and school stories that made him a huge and enduring influence on the language and thought processes of his fans.

Wogan’s latest amiable book, Where Was I?! The World According to Wogan, was published last week, its inevitable success boosted by the massive publicity that has accompanied the news of his semi-retirement. The timing was no coincidence. Wogan may be a pussycat, but he’s a very smart and focused pussycat, who knows what he wants and makes sure he gets it.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards