Sunday, 20 December 2009

Sir Terry moves on

I listened to Terry Wogan's last Radio 2 breakfast show on Friday. More accurately, I listened to it on Friday and Saturday, thanks of course to the BBC's iPlayer. I've been around long enough to remember the first time Terry Wogan left Radio 2, twenty-five years ago. In those days Terry was a youngster of 46, moving on from the radio to take up a thrice-weekly chat show on BBC 1 television. I think that there was a lengthy handover to Jimmy Young. I suspect that those more familiar with that phase of Wogan's career would tell me that there was always a lengthy handover to Jimmy Young, or at least would say that they remembered that having been the case, as Wogan-Young badinage seemed to be part of the programme. There was some kind of presentation, and I am fairly sure that Wogan's recording of 'The Floral Dance' was faded up (as seen on a 1978 David 'Kid' Jensen-fronted Top of the Pops); but it is the kind of move I'd have made had I been editing the programme. Appropriate, because the sub-Rex Harrison sung-spoken, self-conscious overextension of a DJ's irony was exactly the sort of painful thing Wogan did in the late 1970s and early 1980s when he went from being ubiquitous on TV panel games, to a successful game show host himself, and rising chat show presenter. His early Saturday evening show of summer 1980, What's on Wogan?, looked even to my nine-year-old self as if it had a budget of tuppence and its guest record was patchy, but the fact it only ran for that summer etches it in my mind as a bridge between two epochs of my life, between first and middle schools. The appearance of K-9 and Lalla Ward on one programme probably helped. More importantly for Terry Wogan, the programme showed someone that he could interview guests on television in a live setting (though he'd been the anchor of interview formats before, including an ATV daytime series in 1972, and a Radio 4 series in 1974). It may even have established him as heir presumptive to Michael Parkinson in the late Saturday evening slot, a succession which duly operated in 1982 when Parkinson left for TV-am. Wogan seemed an unlikely successor to the argumentative, incisive, journalistic Parkinson, but the move was probably in keeping with the times; Parkinson had interrogated the twentieth century, a march of golden age Hollywood stars, political figures and latterday television celebrities hauled up to prove that they had substance. Wogan - particularly after it became an early evening weekday show in 1985 - was a pageant, celebrating its guests who were more gently molested than Parkinson had managed as they plugged their books, though this method was itself able to produce unexpected revelations.

Part of the reason for the resentment at Wogan's rise was probably that Radio 2 wasn't expected to be the launching ground for stars - at least, not disc jockeys. After the Light Programme was rearranged into Radio 1 and Radio 2 in 1967, almost all the new format, music and presenter-led programmes shared between both channels were badged as Radio 1 shows; music sequence programmes which were Radio 2 only, or Radio 2 after 7am such as Breakfast Special, tended to be presented by people with a traditional BBC announcer training, such as John Dunn. Terry Wogan had not been a 'pirate' like the leading younger Radio 1 DJs, but he had come from Ireland. Even staid RTE could be considered outside the BBC tradition. Moving Wogan from his old mid-afternoon slot on Radio 1 (Radio Rewind has clips from his Radio 1 days), to become a 'personality' presenter on Radio 2 in a slot where Radio 2 had previously deferred to Tony Blackburn on Radio 1, was doubtless part of the move to give Radio 2 more definition as a contemporary service in its own right. This ambition, presaged by the BBC's 1969 strategic plan Broadcasting in the Seventies, took Radio 2 beyond being a pool in which antiquated Light Programme formats were sent to await scuttling. It also allowed Wogan to gradually shed his comedic Irishman persona ('Banjaxed!') and become a wry commentator on the concerns of the broadest possible audience.

The media most remember him pointing out the absurdities of Dallas, but a trawl through 1970s press cuttings reveals him being alternately rubbished as the most banal of the banal while other critics recognize, at least, that such a character took some effort. For every Clive James in The Observer ridiculing him as a cyborg par excellence among cyborg television presenters, there is a Val Arnold-Forster praising him in The Guardian in 1976 as the ideal anchor for Radio 2's morning coverage of the Montreal Olympics. Wogan was not afraid to admit that he didn't understand many of the sports or what they were doing in the Olympics, a point of view shared by many listeners who in some cases must have felt they were listening to the Olympics under duress. As between 1970 and 1990 Radio 2 was the main radio channel for sport coverage in Britain, it's not surprising that sport is well-represented in Wogan's press coverage. "Back to Terry Wogan at Broadcasting House" is a phrase that crops up for years after he had left the Radio 1/Radio 2 afternoon show from which Radio 2 would opt out with racing coverage. 'Wogan's Wager' saw Wogan play the role of racing tipster. There was even a Terry Wogan handicap chase, and Wogan owned at least one racehorse.

When Terry Wogan returned to Radio 2 from television in 1993, he was joining a changed network. In the early 1980s Radio 2 was not only where I heard lots of mid-century Broadway show tunes, 1960s pop and much older material, but where I first heard new singles by Queen and, indeed, French and Saunders. Realignment in the late 1980s and early 1990s under Frances Line, first as controller of music and then as controller herself, had deliberately sought an older audience and deleted almost all references to popular culture after 1960. By 1992, when she replaced Derek Jameson as breakfast host with Brian Hayes, she was admitting this strategy had misjudged her target audience's taste: the average age of the audience was in its mid-sixties, ten years older than her calculations. Circulating Hayes into evening programmes and restoring Wogan helped Line retrench without compromising her earlier dictate that Radio 2 should not be a star-making station - only people already established in the public eye should present on Radio 2. By 1993, Wogan had been a prominent media personality for so long that it could be forgotten that Radio 2 had been where he found much of his fame in the first place.

Perhaps ironically for someone brought in to add a touch of Radio 1 personality broadcasting to Radio 2 back in 1972, the emergence of the defiantly and gleefully ageing TOGs as his listeners helped form continuity with the Line era audience as Radio 2 (including Wogan's show) renewed its engagement with younger strands of popular culture under controllers Jim Moir (1996-2003) and Lesley Douglas (2003-2008). The adoption of elements of a zoo format further distanced Wake Up to Wogan from the old Terry Wogan show, but perhaps most important was that Wogan returned to Radio 2 ready to become an elder statesman. One of his early irreverences as a television commentator on a beauty pageant was to say that he was doing it for the same reason as the bikini-clad contestants: "for the exposure". He didn't need exposure in the same way any more. While television work was not as easily come by as in the 1970s and 1980s there was Children in Need every year, Points of View and experiments such as The Terry and Gaby Show which provided income, coverage and helped Wogan remain a contemporary figure rather than the subject of nostalgic profiles. The innuendos and double entendres of the 'Janet and John' stories and others were likewise signs of modernity.

This is where I admit that I have never really grasped how Terry Wogan maintains such a rapport with his audience. Unlike several of the 1970s newspaper critics, brought up in the stratified days of Light, Home and Third, his reign over the airwaves seems less inexplicable than those of more recent personalities. In a 1979 Guardian review of an edition of Parkinson, Peter Fiddick expressed his surprise that he felt outraged by the use of Terry Wogan as "mute butt" of a "love-in" between Michael Parkinson and Carol Channing. "He is actually too interesting a figure to most of the British public, and too good a professional broadcaster, and maybe even too bright a bloke, to be handed out that treatment." Fiddick managed to acknowledge how a man he'd previously seen as only a representative of the unadventurous and unexciting was revealed as a sophisticated practitioner when taken for granted. Despite his septugenarian age and the premature obituaries of this week, Wogan and his capacity to surprise are still with us. Expect occasional ripples but above all an astutely composed dialogue with audience and with guests on Sunday lunchtimes from February.

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