I’d promised earlier this month not to write another word about any more dead heroes of mine, but this will be the exception, as the person in question was exceptional. January finishes with the death of a true great, Terry Wogan. Friel was my favourite writer, Bowie my favourite singer, but Wogan was my favourite entertainer. Witty, wise, charming, eloquent, erudite, clever, gracious and kind – this was a man we could hold our heads up to and claim as one of our one; someone in fact we should endeavour to be more like. Wogan did something truly phenomenal every day at the crack of dawn without rehearsal – he made about 8.1 million people get out of bed with a ‘Muttley wheeze’ and a spring in their step.
The perfect face (and voice) for radio
As such, the man made this morning grouch ready for the world and that was no mean feat. What is staggering is that Wogan had the ability to make it all seem so easy – he was able to throw all of the listeners’ correspondence up in the air and have it land in the right order, with the right timing, mischief and intonation. I don’t ever remember listening to him and thinking he is having a bad day or that was a bad joke or that section isn’t working – I do remember listening every day and thinking that this show is a pure tonic. No other person could pull it off – or should attempt to now or any time soon. Like Bowie, his genius came from collaboration with others – a great wisecracking crew around him and hilarious material fed to him from his fanbase, Terry’s Old Geezers and Gals a.k.a. the TOGs.
What he did with all that though was to forge it into radio gold every single day, live on air and without a script per se or cue cards. Wogan in full flight with the gang on board and the endless TOG material being brought to life was stop the car, gasping for breath, tears of laughter rolling down your cheek funny. Near the end of each show, he had a Pause for Thought section – even though he had no faith himself, he never betrayed his own doubts and was gracious and generous with whomever the speaker was. He could move seamlessly from the sublime to the ridiculous and into the spiritual, never missing a beat or fluffing a line.
Annual mischief with the Eurovision
What I’m going to write next might seem a tad over the top, but with his passing, Ireland and Britain have lost possibly the funniest man we will ever know. Now I’m sure some of you will say ‘hang on, what about Bill Hicks, Tommy Cooper, Flann O’Brien and so on…’. Well, they were funny men and Terry was in the ‘light entertainment’ end of things, but just remember no one else managed to deliver such a delicious medley of surreal humour, double entendres, wry observations and exquisite badinage as well as this man did. This tricky task was delivered day in day out for years and at an hour that the rest of us would rather not deal with the world at all at all. Tot all that airtime up and chances are that you and I have laughed more at Wogan’s wit than we ever did for Blackadder or The Two Ronnies. Essentially he made us laugh when we wanted to cry – on cold dark Winter mornings getting ready for another dreary day of work or packing lunch boxes for screaming ingrates or being stuck with fellow shoulder shaking TOGs in endless traffic jams. For that rare gift delivered with aplomb during daily domestic sagas, he surely is a contender for that coveted funniest man title. Eric Morecombe found an early grave trying to make every Christmas show funnier than the previous year’s show. Wogan just rocked up and rolled it all out daily as if he were cracking open eggs for breakfast – now that’s what I call real talent.
Anarchy in the UK, Wogan style
Just before Christmas, I was due to go to a carol service that a friend was organising – she had Terry on the bill as M.C., but he pulled out citing ‘back problems’. Like Bowie, his time was nearly up, but no one bar those closest would ever know. A class act right to the end. In writing about Bowie recently, I listed my other heroes – Cash, Friel, Presley and had Wogan in there (well, in the footnotes for the sake of rock and roll flow). I rated him that highly – the gift of making someone laugh is arguably the greatest gift there is and can only be achieved if the person in question is both clever and charming, which of course he was, but never arrogant, never condescending and never getting the tone wrong; that was just not his style. All of those heroes above had their ‘issues’ shall we say and of the whole lot, I think he is the only idol I would have wanted to meet. Certainly, the only one I’d want to be stuck in a lift with for six hours.
Daily magic conjured up out of nowhere
He had an inherent sense of mischief and is responsible for introducing the word ‘eejit’ to the British public, with him admitting to being the biggest one of all. His rendition of The Floral Dance at the height of the punk era was infinitely more anarchic a gesture to the nation than po-faced punk itself. Plus he just wanted to be on Top of the Pops for the craic and sure why not? Marcel Duchamp gave us his porcelain urinal in 1917, but Wogan’s larking about with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band was a bolder milestone in postmodernism in my humble opinion. His single-handed harpooning and slaughter of the giant whale that is the Eurovision freak show was the man at his subversive best. If the po-faced Eurovision lovers didn’t like that, too bad. Pardon the wide brush-stroking, but the Brits can take themselves too seriously at times; Wogan was the antidote and successfully de po-faced them over time, one by one. Radio 4 grandiosely stated that where the Queen was the centre of gravity of the nation, Wogan was the centre of levity. Not bad for a subversive eejit from the banks of the Shannon.
Only Wogan could have brought his magic to a simple putt
If you really want to annoy me in company, start off with the words, ‘do you know who you remind me of – Colm Meaney’. Never a good idea. On the odd occasion folk have said that I remind them of Terry Wogan and though clearly drunk and deluded, I salute these fine folk as it is the highest compliment I could ask for. To me he was a great fella to aspire to be like – if only. His modus operandi and in turn the secret to his success was described in typical Wogan style:- ‘Get on your toes, keep your wits about you, say goodnight politely and when it’s over, go home and enjoy your dinner.‘ Wogan was apparently the same off the mike as well – down to earth, affable, mischievous with an easy smile and a quick spontaneous wit at the ready. Very much a family man, I remember thinking how chuffed he was when his grandson Harry was born some years back – he played the song ‘Harry’ and I always thought it was such a lovely touch by a proud grandpa – and what a great song to have known thanks to him. We’ll overlook his championing of Katie Melua to the world and wryly roll our eyes to heaven at seeing his iconoclastic Floral Dance in all those tributes today. Terry famously signed off his final show by saying ‘thank you for being my friend’ but in truth, this TOG is very happy to say ‘thank you for being my friend’; it was a pleasure to wake up to you for so many years.