Ronnie Corbett, for a lot of Brits of a certain age was a staple of Saturday night television comedy. He recently died aged 85. If you weren’t around in Britain or other countries able to pick up his BBC1 show, The Two Ronnies, in the 1970s and ’80s in which he co-starred with Ronnie Barker, let me give you the basics quickly. And then permit me a few personal reminiscences, as I was privileged to work with him.
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.)
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.