Wogan RIP – farewell to a great entertainer

Photo of Terry Wogan in the BBC Radio 2 studio

Sir Terry Wogan after finishing his BBC Radio 2 show, London, February 2013

Sir Terry Wogan is no more. A TV and radio natural, beloved across the UK and in his native Ireland, has faded out his microphone for the last time.

I remember him in my latest London Podcast (as I write), Wogan RIP: exclusive interview. It includes a scene-setter – a kind of Wogan for Beginners, in case you’re from outside the UK and Ireland, and not up to speed on his appeal.

His calm centredness on-air and off- (I was lucky enough to experience it first-hand) spread like balm across an often troubled nation.

I didn’t have time in my podcast to recount an occasion I witnessed involving Terry when I was in the original BBC Broadcasting House a few years ago. It speaks to his ability to warmly relate to colleagues at all levels. It was about half an hour before Terry was due to present Weekend Wogan from the beautiful art deco Radio Theatre in front of a typically eager audience.

The audience assistants who usher the crowd in were just gathering before being scrambled into action, and Sir Terry emerged from his dressing room. Approaching the ushers’ huddle he said, ‘It’s too late for a union meeting now!’

As one, they laughed – a good, genuine lung-driven laugh, not the deferential, airless variety reserved for unloved superiors. Many ‘stars’ wouldn’t engage with anyone with ‘assistant’ in their job title. Not Terry.

Terry in tax-free tree-hugging shame shock‘ – not

He was a great ambassador for the corporation, for which he did most of his broadcast work. At a time when a hint of scandal could attach itself – rightly or wrongly – to numerous celebs, ‘El Tel’ stood unimpeachable. The worst the press could dig up was an association with a tax efficient scheme to encourage the growth of forests in Scotland. ‘Shock horror: national treasure behind entirely legal system to increase forestation’.

Even the revelation of his £800,000.00 annual pay cheque for his radio show led to a UK-wide, resigned, l’Oréal-style shrug: because he’s worth it. (Whisper it: I was paid more than that to present on local radio. More per listener that is. A sad consequence of a woefully smaller audience!)

But to be honest, apart from the obvious sadness as a radio lover and as a sometime colleague, I have another sadness over Terry. Years ago, when earnest young humanities graduates forged the BBC2 TV arts strand The Late Show, Terry was once enlisted as a reviewer. In recollection he was fantastically lucid, didn’t have to soften his intelligence for this niche audience, and opined effortlessly on whatever he’d been asked to review (sorry – it’s 20+ years ago and has slipped the YouTube net – I forget the detail). I would like to have seen more of that Wogan.

However, popular culture and serious comment are not easy bedfellows (at the extreme, a world away from Wogan, Stewart Lee is strong on this – search his name and that of fellow comedian Russell Brand, together with the term ‘racism’, if you dare. Warning: adult content will surface.)

Farewell, then…

I’m fortunate enough to have had personal interaction with Sir Terry. But if you were one of his millions of admirers, you’ll have had largely the same warm experience as me, via his shows. And if you were ever in the audience for the Wogan television chat show I worked on back in the ’80s, perhaps you, like me, will carry the memory of comic actor Felix Bowness perform his ‘warm up’, interrupted by the thunderous call to arms from brilliant drummer Barry Morgan. Then Terry would appear on the balcony, trademark glass of red in one hand and sausage on a stick in the other, beaming as the applause erupted, followed by the lad from Limerick’s gentle, self-effacing shtick prior to the show going live.

My last memory of Terry was following the interview featured in the podcast mentioned above. We talked in the Radio 2 lift down about how he was going to appear on a show saying farewell to BBC Television Centre, dubbed by him ‘the concrete doughnut’, in honour of its unconventional shape.

Before I said goodbye, he told me how the paper bag he was holding contained something cake-like from the breakfast tray for his driver (there could be a joke there about ‘concrete doughnuts’, but I think they were pastries. Damn the details!).

Typical Terry, though. Thoughtful to the last.


Comedians on the radio – no laughing matter?

It seems hard to recall now, but it was once a novel idea to put comedians on the radio as presenters. It must have seemed a win-win: the radio station believed they were buying into guaranteed laughs – and with them, they hoped, audiences – while the comedian got guaranteed work, often daily, at least until the end of their contract. Both parties should be laughing all the way to the bank.

I can’t blame a comic for wanting to swap a punishing life on the road (or an equally punishing wait for the phone to ring) for an air-conditioned studio. Add to that the liberation from sweaty (or non-existent) dressing rooms, and from the reliance on a ‘good door’ or anxieties about a hostile house. Forget heckling – the worst you’re likely to get is a dead bat from the travel reporter.

Likewise, you can’t gainsay a station manager for thinking they’ve bought into a master (or mistress) ad-libber who can fly by the seat of their pants and turn the trivial into comedy gold. Plus, a lot of comedians come with a built-in fanbase, and concomitant public profile. Why wouldn’t it work?

Except that often, it seems to me, it doesn’t.

As with many things, there’s greater complexity than first appears to be the case, but if it can be reduced it to one main reason, I believe it’s that the template in the performer’s head is wrong. Comics are hard-wired to play to a crowd in the room and to go for every laugh, but laughs are rarer when listening alone. The stage isn’t a loudspeaker. And a merry group (or boozy rabble) isn’t the same as a solitary listener, or even a small ensemble listening in a car.

Successful standup Phill Jupitus is very insightful and refreshingly unegotistical about why he isn’t still a radio presenter in his book Good Morning Nantwich. He swapped living out of a suitcase for being live on BBC Radio 6 Music each weekday morn. In his book Jupitus makes a passing mention of having someone else in the studio and playing to them because, to paraphrase, ‘that’s what you do’. I’m not sure he realises the significance of this; it’s the mike, and by extension the listener you really need to address. Listeners are jealous creatures and demand attention. Heaven help the perfidious presenter!

There’s nothing that says a comedian must make a great radio presenter. But there’s nothing that says they can’t either. For me the difference is a respect for the medium of radio as radio, and not as a supposed soft career option. Remember that and you’re laughing.

Mike Smith RIP

I was very sorry to hear of former TV and radio presenter Mike Smith’s passing recently. (You may have heard he died from complications during heart surgery at the age of 59.) Our paths had briefly crossed on two occasions a few years apart, both times during my years sound engineering at BBC Television Centre in west London.


The first encounter was slightly cool, to be honest. We had some downtime during rehearsals for the weekly chart music TV show Top of the Pops, and I was trying to make small talk with him. (I blame the radio nut/inner autograph hunter/idol worshipper part of me.) The smoke gun – designed to diffuse the lights in a late-night club kind of way – was working overtime, and I remarked that ‘You don’t get this in radio, do you?’ Instantly I thought an exception might be with overheating equipment but, being the quick wit he was, he got in first with, ‘Only when something goes wrong.’ Quick-wittedness was his day job, after all.

He didn’t make eye contact and seemed to be a little ‘elsewhere’, and, as a sometime listener of his, I was a little hurt that he didn’t engage more. In relating this to a friend immediately after Mike’s untimely demise, I could at last acknowledge that, as well as being possibly something to do with Smith’s ego, it could equally have been something to do with mine. Or perhaps I was just too needy!


When we happened to be in the same studio again a few years later, I was up on a boom (that device with a microphone on a long telescopic arm) and I was aware of him leaning on the platform, chatting to someone else. I then got absorbed in capturing the sound of whatever action was taking place in front of the cameras. As I swung the arm to the right to follow whoever was speaking, I accidentally trod on Mike’s arm. I went to apologise immediately, but before I could do so, Mike Smith apologised to me. That lightning tongue again.

Might sound trivial, and I could be wrong, but I think it could illustrate how we’d both moved on. I didn’t feel I might be the insignificant ‘techie’ to him any more, and he seemed genuinely warm, with no highfalutin sense of himself. Not easy when you’ve enjoyed the kind of profile he had.


It’s sad that anyone should die at that age, of course. But I feel an extra sadness with Mike in that his early death has robbed us of someone who had become something of an elder statesman of radio, an intelligent commentator on the medium who, by virtue of having been one of its popular practitioners at the highest level, had earned the right to have a view. (See a typically forthright example regarding Chris Moyles here, and find his blog here.) His idea that BBC Radio should pursue genres rather than age groups was at least worthy of further thought.

My thoughts are with Sarah Greene, his widow.