CHAT-SHOWS / The blarney's over: Wogan ends tonight after seven years of chatter. Mark Lawson reflects on the one celebrity Terry never interviewed
Friday 03 July 1992
Throughout the 1970s, two British television executives with American sympathies - Michael Grade and Billy Cotton Jr - were obsessed with the idea of introducing to this country the kind of nightly chat-show pioneered in the USA by NBC's Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Cotton tried first with Michael Parkinson, who filled two BBC evenings a week in the late 1970s but lacked boardroom support for extension to four or five. In 1984, Grade created Wogan, an early evening chat-show on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. When Grade moved to Channel 4, he tried again, in 1990, with a Jonathan Ross show on the same nights. But both Wogan and Ross have this year decided to revert to once- a-week formats.
What went wrong? America - a country we like to regard as less sophisticated than our own - now supports at least four nightly chat-shows, hosted by Jay Leno (replacing Johnny Carson), Arsenio Hall, David Letterman and Larry King. One explanation may be the small pool of celebrity guests available in Britain, in comparison with the vast resources America can draw on in New York and Hollywood.
And, if the format was difficult for Britain, the choice of Terry Wogan, at his best as a surreal monologuist, only exacerbated the problems. Or maybe the British mistake was simply the never-explained decision to make a format work at 7pm in Britain which American television kept for 11pm.
Whatever the explanation, some of these difficulties of format, guest-list and host are underlined in this exclusive transcript of tonight's final Wogan show:
A PLUMP middle-aged man in a checked suit, with suspiciously smooth hair, enters to audience hysteria.
WOGAN: Friends, Romans, countrymen, if you have tears, prepare to shed them now] For, after tonight, two roads diverge in a wood and I, I take the one less travelled by] Seven years, 1,300 shows, 4,000 guests - or, some might say, 500 guests 8 times each - 650 hours of television and tens of hundreds of baroque literary allusions largely wasted on a peak-time evening audience. Now, who - we asked ourselves - would be a fitting final guest? Can you guess? No? You can breathe out now, mother. It's a man justly famous for being the only British celebrity never previously interviewed on the Wogan show. Will you give a warm welcome to . . . Terry Wogan]
A plump middle-aged man in a checked suit, with suspiciously smooth hair, enters to audience hysteria.
WOGAN: Hello, Terry. Or should I say goodbye Terry?
TERRY: Right both times, Terry.
WOGAN: Now, there's been a lot of blarney - put about, to be sure, by those paid to be professional carpers - that you are, as it were, jumping before you're pushed. That the ratings are plummeting, though, heaven knows, it's a mad mad world in which five million is sniffed at. What'd you say to that?
TERRY: I'd give you the answer that all the British celebrities on your show give to even mild criticism. That, in America, people applaud success. In Britain, they hate it.
WOGAN: There's a lot of truth in that.
Now there are also - and it's kind of inevitable I suppose in an envious world - those who say that, as a chat-show host, you asked soft questions - endlessly qualified by sympathetic references to malice and envy - and accepted soft answers to them. Do you think that's true?
TERRY: It's nonsense.
WOGAN: Moving on, it's been said that not knowing as much as you might about your guests has marred your interviews on Panorama . . .
TERRY: On Wogan.
WOGAN: As you were. On Wogan. Now - and obviously there's a lot of spite and malice aforethought and so on out there - but there are those - substantial eejits if you ask me - who say that you were one of the most inventive radio broadcasters in history but that, on television, you speak in a lazy and irritating mish-mash of stage- Irish, rococo B-film dialogue and half-remembered literary quotation . . .
TERRY: Well, stap me vitals] Unhand me, sir] Stop, who goes there? Who'd be after telling you that kind of blarney?
WOGAN: 'Tis a true word you speak, sir. Moving on, what do you say to those Moaning Minnies who claim you're over-dependent on the autocue?
TERRY: No shake head.
WOGAN: I beg your pardon?
TERRY: I'm sorry. I mean, no. (He shakes his head.)
WOGAN: Do you think people will be sorry to see the show go?
TERRY: Let me tell you, Terry, the BBC has had letters from people begging them not to end the series.
WOGAN: And none of these people had the surname 'Wogan' by any chance?
TERRY: Not at all. In fact, I can tell you some of their names. Joseph. Cape. Deutsch. Hamilton. There was a Hodder and a Stoughton. And two Fabers. What's more, we've had hysterical phone calls from as far away as Hollywood.
WOGAN: Now you mention it yourself, there are some particularly pernickety denizens of Grub Street who say that your show was some kind of plugger's paradise, everyone selling something, 'a show always more bazaar than bizarre', as some spotty scribbler put it. Would you like to harpoon that canard?
TERRY: Look, Terry, I've devoted 10 pages of my new book to denying this very point. I refute it in an interview in the new Radio Times. There's nothing more I can say. People will just have to go out and buy the book or the magazine, and make up their own mind.
WOGAN: When you started the show, seven years ago, there was a lot of talk about you becoming 'the British Johnny Carson'. Some Jeremiahs would say you didn't exactly achieve that.
TERRY: Oh, I think, in the end, Johnny Carson and I did turn out to have something in common.
WOGAN: What was that?
TERRY: We both retired in 1992. And, in fact, although I realise that you have to put tough questions to me, I in the end have achieved something which no other celebrity in British or American television has achieved . . .
WOGAN: What was that?
TERRY: My show was still called Wogan even when I was on holiday in Spain.
WOGAN: And now you're being replaced by a show about people on holiday in Spain?
TERRY: Yes. El Dorado. I did wonder if they'd decide to keep the name Wogan for that. It would be just as logical. But there you are.
WOGAN: And is this really the end of you?
TERRY: In this format. I'll be back with a new once-a-week series in the autumn.
WOGAN: What'll that be like?
TERRY: It's under wraps. Perhaps I could come back on and talk about it when . . . Ah.
WOGAN: Now there's a thought. For where have the BBC plugged all their new series for the last eight years?
TERRY: On Wogan.
WOGAN: So where will they be after plugging them now?
TERRY: Stap me vitals, sir. You're right.
WOGAN: 'Twill serve the BBC right. Ladies and gentlemen, a warm hand for a fine man. Even if I say so meself.
TERRY: Gone and never called me mother]
'Wogan', 7pm tonight, BBC 1.
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