This morning we heard the sad news of the death of Terry Wogan, an Irish-born broadcaster who for decades had various light entertainment programmes on TV and Radio mostly in the United Kingdom. It is reckoned that he may well have had the largest audiences of any broadcaster in the world. As the BBC compère for the Eurovision Song Contest he brought millions to their TV sets just to hear his witty comments. Even when living in Ireland we preferred to tune in to the BBC just for the fun of listening to him and his wry gentle sense of humour.
I first came across Terry Wogan when as a teenager I was incarcerated in the St. Louis Convent Boarding School in Dundalk, County Louth, hundreds of miles from home. In the rarefied atmosphere of all girls boarding school we were living in such an emotionally deficient bubble that we sometimes ‘fixated’ on people in the public domain. (Most especially male). The marriage of Ringo Starr of Beatles fame for example threw the entire school into disarray and at least one of our number cried for an entire term, such was her upset.
And likewise with the marriage of Terry Wogan to the lovely fashion model,Helen Joyce in 1965. I am not sure that I even knew much about him at that time! Ireland’s television service, just launched in 1961 was still in its infancy, but Terry Wogan had made a mark as a newsreader and announcer, he had been one of the TV commentators covering the 1963 visit of President Kennedy to Ireland. And he was handsome to boot. Yet he caused a stir when it became known that he had married Helen. Helen Joyce was probably as well-known as Terry for she regularly appeared in the Sunday newspaper (Sunday Press or Sunday Independent, I do not recall which). Each Sunday there was a strip of small photos of models modelling coats, or dresses, or hats with the name of the model added alongside.
The marriage caused a great sense of disappointment. I clearly recall class mates being incredulous that Terry Wogan had done such a thing. How could he go off and get married! And besides,was she really THAT nice? Even though I was not really sure who he was I was caught up in the clamour of disbelief and the sense that perhaps he was not quite ‘of sound mind’ to have married at all! (These thoughts astonish me even now, but such was the lot of hormonal teenagers!)
Fast forward several years and I am an economic migrant living in London. In the 1970s IRA terrorists began bombing in the UK. It was a tough place to be Irish. Hardly a day passed without some hurtful remark or comment from work colleagues or shop assistants or bus conductors. Terry Wogan was by now presenting a morning radio show on the BBC. He held his head high throughout the atrocities. He never referred to the terror and the killings but remained proudly Irish and set a great example for those of us expats who lived and worked there. We watched footage of the carnage caused by so-called Irish patriots on TV in the evening and went to work listening to the soft Irish tones of Terry Wogan on his breakfast programme. To me personally his gentle quirky humour made it easier to be Irish in those dark times and his great good humour set me up for many a day as I headed to the office.
In the Telegraph Obituary published today John Humphrys of the Today programme ”put his finger on the Irishman’s secret: “It is just that he puts his audience at ease. That’s why they want to listen, because they feel better about themselves after they have listened to him. He has made the nation feel at ease with itself and that’s a great gift and we owe him a lot for that”. He certainly put a lot of expat Irish at ease during those awful times.
He also fronted the BBC presentation of the Annual Eurovision Song Contest which gave joy to millions as he gently berated the goings-on. His Eurovision quips were legendary, some of which can be seen here .
But there are two quotes from him that I think sum him up:
About his long happy marriage of over 50 years to Helen: “If the present Mrs Wogan has a fault – and I must tread carefully here – this gem in the diadem of womanhood is a hoarder. She never throws anything out. Which may explain the longevity of our marriage.”
When he met the Queen of England (a regular listener to his programme) on a visit to the BBC she asked him how long he had worked at the BBC. He replied ”Your Majesty, I’ve never worked here.”
Terry Wogan who broke the hearts of schoolgirls in 1965, has broken hearts again. While we rejoice that he has lived and are the better of it, the President of Ireland,The Queen of England, Prime Ministers of both the UK and Ireland, the Children in Need Charity which he started in 1980 and which has so far raised £300 million, his work colleagues in Ireland and London, his listeners and fans everywhere, and most especially his wife, children and grandchildren all mourn his passing on this day, January 31 2016.