Wogan: heavyweight with a light touch

The absence of Terry Wogan leaves a hole in radio presenting

On Radio

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Easy listening is less easy to pull off than we sometimes imagine. A presenter who sounds homely may also be banal. One who lapses into occasional quirkiness, for comic relief, can appear contrived. To hold the listener’s attention for two hours or longer by being natural, or seeming to be, is a rare gift, and those touched by it are becoming rarer.

There can’t be much doubt that the “light” radio performer who made it sound easiest was Terry Wogan, whose breakfast show on Radio 2 ran, in its second incarnation, from 1993 to 2009, attracting eight million listeners. 

He had first taken the breakfast host’s chair in April 1972 before he went off in 1984 to concentrate on telly but, though he enjoyed success on the box, it was as a radio performer that he made his sharpest contribution to public life.

On the wireless Wogan could really be Wogan. It was the place where he could speak most naturally to his audience. On the box, on Blankety Blank for instance, he was a licensed jester, but he was never really stretched. His prime time talk show on BBC1 wasn’t very good at all. There was too much playing to the gallery, and too many second-rate guests. The true Wogan was much better than that.

Too many people on the radio today sound excessively prepared

He wasn’t the first person to excel in those early hours of the day, when people are cleaning their teeth and cooking breakfast. Ray Moore, largely forgotten now, also had a gentle manner and a smart wit. It was Wogan, however, who claimed that kingdom as his own. Not many broadcasters are so identified with a show that they are irreplaceable. He belongs in that gilded assembly.

Fifty years after his first breakfast show, Radio 2 paid tribute to their finest performer with Wogan In His Own Words, rooted in an interview — strangely unaired — he granted to Radio Southampton in 1980. He spoke clearly and openly about his working life, and the joys and pitfalls of fame. The guests ushered in to pad out the hour, invited to tell everybody how well they knew Terry and how much they loved him, were a mixed bag. Is there anything a Radio 1 disc jockey can tell us that we haven’t heard a hundred times before?

The most convincing witness was Ken Bruce, another superb radio performer. Like Wogan, Bruce manages to sound like everybody’s friend. If you saw him walking towards your door you would put the kettle on, and get out the shortbread. It’s that gift of easy communication: unquantifiable, developed through years of experience.

Wogan said he had “no specific talent”, which isn’t quite right, though you know what he was driving at. Too many people on the radio today sound schooled, excessively prepared, anxious to turn a phrase. Wogan, like a master batsman, let the ball come to him. 

He was a highly intelligent man, with a wide range of reference and a well-stocked mind, so the problems that will always exist in live performance brought out the best in him. Besides, if you are witty, have a natural warmth, and speak English with clarity and just the right tone, you are obviously not without talent.

Radio 2 used to have these people in abundance. After Wogan came Jimmy Young, the pop crooner turned interviewer of politicians. At teatime there was the courtly John Dunn and at bedtime Brian Matthew presented Round Midnight. It was a male world, largely, but that doesn’t alter the fact that these people were accomplished broadcasters.

Sadly, when Wogan took his leave from those “old geezers and gals” who tuned in he was succeeded (hardly “replaced”) by Chris Evans, a man who made his grubby mark by shouting at listeners. Instead of the wit of Wogan, listeners were confronted by an adolescent show-off who bellowed in capital letters. What were they thinking of?

And who was invited to present the station’s tribute to Wogan? Zoe Ball, of course, one of those lightweights the BBC takes for serious broadcasters. The ageing starlet, who now fills the hours allotted to Wogan, told us how, as a teenager, she used to listen “into” Terry’s breakfast show. 

One listens to, not into. It’s not a small mistake, either. It reveals a tin ear, a lack of respect for the language Wogan cherished. It was that respect, more than anything, which bound him to his listeners. He never talked down to them.

Another lightweight favoured by Radio 2 is Sara Cox, a former ladette, who is 47 going on 16. Wogan, by the way, was 33 when he took over the breakfast show, and already had the gravitas of one 10 years older. The Balls and Coxes may prosper for now. By trying hard never to grow up they are fulfilling a need the BBC feels to be “challenging”, or whatever is the favoured adjective this month. They will not be recalled half a century on.

Terry Wogan’s career was a collision of stars. Such accidents happen once, if at all, and leave a hole that can never be filled. We must be grateful.

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