Terry Wogan: Welcome to his world

It could be the 1980s all over again as the broadcasting phenomenon that is Sir Terry finds himself back in the armchair with a new chat show on UKTV Gold. David Icke had better watch out. Ian Burrell meets the Togmeister
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The Independent Online

he sight of David Icke in a turquoise and pink shellsuit, playing the messiah on the Wogan show in 1991, will surely rank pretty close to number one when Channel 4 or Five ever gets round to making a programme called "The most excruciating chat show moments ever".

Icke, familiar to viewers as a Green Party politician and former BBC sports presenter, reduced the studio audience to hysterics with his eccentric theories, including one on the power of laughter for curing evil, only for host Terry Wogan to advise him: "They're laughing at you - they're not laughing with you."

Last Wednesday evening the pair renewed their acquaintance for the first of a new series called Wogan Then and Now, which begins on UKTV Gold tomorrow. In this case, the now was very different from the then.

For a start Icke had ditched his aquamarine sportswear in favour of a sombre, all-black ensemble, stepping smartly on to the stage with his hair in a greying mullet and an expression of intense seriousness on his face.

Wogan, having tripped up the messiah first time round, elected to start this encounter on the back foot, replaying the original quip and then apologising: "When I see that I'm slightly embarrassed. I thought I was a bit sharp with that comment."

With that Icke was off. "I couldn't walk down any street in Britain without being laughed at by most of the people. Going into a pub there was uproar. A comedian only had to say my name to get a laugh. What that does is it reveals to you the level of maturity that passes for adulthood in this country," he moaned.

The remainder of the interview consisted of a stream-of-consciousness from Icke on how the world and international media are run by a sinister cabal, while Wogan interjected with the occasional "But who are these hidden hands?" and "But America is an open society, isn't it?".

This latter comment provided the only burst of laughter from the studio audience as Icke retorted: "Oh pur-leese, I've got some seafront property in Birmingham Terry you might like to buy. And they say I'm crazy."

Unlike the award-winning original BBC1 Wogan, which ran for eight years and established its Limerick-born host as Britain's best-known media figure, the new show is recorded. That particular interview may require some work in the edit suite, although an earlier exchange with Christopher Lee (also to be shown in the opening offering of a 13-show series) saw Old Tel at his best, engaging warmly with an acting legend who is even more of a box office attraction now than he was when he appeared on Wogan two decades earlier.

At 67, Terry Wogan can still reasonably lay claim to being Britain's most successful broadcaster. His Wake Up to Wogan breakfast show on Radio 2 pulls an audience of eight million and has been a phenomenal success since he returned to his favourite medium a year after the BBC1 chat show was taken off air in 1992. Huge television audiences still watch him present the Eurovision Song Contest and Children in Need, neither of which would seem the same without him.

So it is an extraordinary coup for UKTV to have brought him into the world of multichannel television, or "extra-terrestrial" as the host himself calls it.

Speaking in a London hotel bar two days ahead of the first recording, Wogan expresses the view that the series is a "good idea" but he has hardly drawn breath before mildly rebuking the BBC for not having made it. "The reason I came to doing it - having said that I didn't want to do another talk show as long as I lived - is that it had that interesting aspect to it. It surprises me in a sense that nobody else in the BBC thought this might be a good idea. But then, they've been saying to me for at least the last five years 'We must find you something...'," he says.

It is the link to the past that gives Wogan's new project something extra compared to younger chat show hosts such as Jonathan Ross. "It's the only point in doing it. Otherwise it's just another talk show and the woods are full of them," he says.

He has plenty of fond memories of the original Wogan, even if "a number of my previous guests have since fallen off their perch", which could cause a few problems for the bookers at UKTV Gold.

"The ones that I remember most are mostly gone. The one that I really had greatest affection for was James Stewart, and you know Gregory Peck, these are people from my youth. It's extraordinary that I talked to them," he says, still wide-eyed at the recollection.

Indeed, the main criticism of his interviewing style of old was that he was too chummy, always avoiding a scene. When he found himself interviewing Sara Keays, who had been abandoned with a love child by the Tory minister Cecil Parkinson, he opened with the line: "Now Sara, yours is a story as old as time..."

Ms Keays snapped back: "It's nothing of the sort. I was the victim of today's totalitarian Conservative Party."

But in 2006 Wogan is not about to start grilling his guests. "I'm embarrassed by confrontation television," he says, perhaps explaining his decision to apologise to David Icke. "It's not an argument. It's not life or death. It's only show business - not Jeremy Paxman time."

Whereas Paxo is known for his relentless questioning of a Home Secretary, Wogan accepts that he and his peers occupy another place in the broadcasting universe. "Michael Parkinson is going to be remembered for being attacked by an Emu, Russell Harty for being slapped by Grace Jones, and me for two - Georgie Best being speechless with drink and saying 'shag' and Anne Bancroft for being catatonic and refusing to speak at all. You are remembered for the bad ones. That's fair enough. Talk show is the cheapest form of televisual entertainment, apart from out-takes."

That Wogan is prepared to embark on such a project again will come as a surprise to those who remember his oft-repeated comments after Wogan was dropped in favour of the ill-fated soap Eldorado. "Wogan was the only thing I didn't time right and I didn't because I was earning so much money from it," he has said. "So instead of following my instinct, which I'd always done before, in Come Dancing or Blankety Blank and stopping it when I thought I'd done enough, I let it go on for a year or two years too long."

Wogan, who does a minimum of preparation for his radio and television work in order to protect the spontaneity of his presentation, will not be watching his new show when it goes out. "I've become ridiculously self-conscious. My wife and family know they can't watch it if I'm in the room. You think 'who is that?'. It's just what I do. I just like doing it," he says.

He is charming company and appreciates the value of self-deprecation, both on air and in interviews. But John Keeling, controller of UKTV, who is trying to move his network beyond its reliance on the BBC's archive and bring in more original programming, can hardly believe his luck at being offered Britain's best-known broadcaster. "It just jumped off the page," he says. "We are talking Terry Wogan, who was an icon anyway, but who is also current because of the spectacular success of his broadcasts on Radio 2. When the opportunity to work with him was presented to UKTV Gold it just fitted the channel perfectly." If the project is successful, it could pave the way for other faces familiar to UKTV Gold audiences being offered fresh shows.

Wogan has never gone cap in hand looking for work. "It's not my job to find me things. I'm just the presenter. I don't get involved in the production process," he says. But in spite of his protestations of lack of ambition, his hunger for more television work has been growing. Wogan was overlooked by the BBC for coverage of the Millennium and Golden Jubilee and he has watched Bruce Forsyth become the star of Saturday nights with a remake of a show he once hosted.

He muses over the way his career has panned out and talks of the ambitions that he once had. "I would love to have been a journalist - that's what I wanted to be," he says. "When I started I was a newsreader on Irish radio so I was involved in the newsroom with the news all the time. Then Irish television started to present the odd documentary, which you would write yourself. I've always enjoyed writing."

Log in to the online archive of the Irish state broadcaster RTE and you can hear the young Terry somewhat breathlessly describing the procession of John F Kennedy through the streets of Dublin in July 1963, his accent so much stronger that he pronounces "enthusiastic" without the H. But the journalistic impulses were never quite followed through.

"I was such a conventional person and as I've always said if my father had been a doctor I would have been a doctor, although luckily he didn't have a profession to follow. I don't know," he sighs heavily. "I would just have walked around all my life, like a lot of Irishmen, saying, 'By God, I wish I'd been a journalist.'"

In view of his comments on confrontation television it has probably turned out for the best. Certainly Wogan could hardly have been more successful. After taking a job hosting a successful RTE quiz show called Jackpot, he started working for the BBC in 1967 (at one early point commuting weekly from Dublin) and has been at the corporation pretty much ever since. He is known to every generation and was knighted by the Queen last year.

When Wogan was taken off BBC1 there was a feeling that the public was irked by his ubiquity. A poll found that he was both the most and least popular person in the country, and Prince Philip purportedly said the difference between Wogan and the M1 was that you could turn off the motorway. As he returned to the radio in 1993 one headline styled the comeback "Last Chance for Game Old Wogan". How he has taken that chance.

The show, he observes, is very different now from its original incarnation. Instead of relying on a constant patter he now knows when not to talk and uses his producer (Paulie Walters) and his news and travel presenters as his foils.

Walters, says Wogan, speaks away from the microphone because "he's the person responding. The fact that he's off mike creates the atmosphere of intimacy". The producer, he says, is "quick-witted and understands that you don't go on (talking) for ever; it's monosyllables, a couple of words".

Likewise, the travel and news reporters - Alan "Deadly Alancoat" Dedicoat, John "Boggy" Marsh and Fran Godfrey - have been carefully nurtured. "Although they're not in the studio, their sense of timing has grown with me so they know when to stop talking. The essence of anything like that, with two or three people talking, is to be able to walk away from it, leave it alone. I don't feel I have to top everything anybody says, you must let other people win."

That is not to say that the show has been meticulously planned - quite the opposite. The only real preparation takes the form of Walters sifting through the hundreds of emails from hardcore listeners, the Togs (Terry's Old Geezers and Old Gals), often couched in the theatrical, innuendo-laced lexicon ("What Ho!") of the "Grand Togmeister", Wogan himself.

The presenter, who lives in Buckinghamshire, is habitually dropped off at Broadcasting House by his driver less than half an hour before going on air at 7.30am and Walters drip feeds him the emails during the show. Wogan was inspired to this off-the-cuff approach by a Dean Martin television programme. "He just walked in and did the show and I thought that's what I want to do."

The tone of Wake Up to Wogan is a strange mix of exasperation at the absurdity of modern life combined with quirky, slightly risqué observation and chuckling from Wogan, the "Cheerful Charlie" or "Johnny Jolly Pants" as he has variously described himself. It recalls the nonsense of classic 1970s Saturday night television such as Morecambe and Wise or The Two Ronnies, fused with provincial panto and some why-oh-whery from the op-ed pages of the Mail or the Express.

To some, the show is radio genius, a source of comfort when the world outside has gone mad. (The Togs' website carries the catchline "an online home for the bewildered".) The site is aligned to Richard Ingrams' magazine The Oldie.

Despite the fogeyism, Wogan has been, and remains, a force in influencing British popular culture. The backer of the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band (whose tune "The Floral Dance" he made a late 1970s hit), he has more recently helped the careers of Jamie Cullum (who played at his daughter's wedding) and Katie Melua. The man who made a British hit of Dallas can also drive TV ratings.

"The best thing on at the moment is Boston Legal. William Shatner is the archetypal television actor in this. He hardly moves and his little eyes have become recessed into his head. He understands televisual acting whereas so few British actors do because they train at Rada in big gestures and big movements," he says.

The Stephen Poliakoff BBC drama Friends and Crocodiles shown the previous night had not impressed him. "God it was rubbish. I've never seen such a load of unstructured thing in all my life," he says, repeating criticisms he had made earlier on air.

Although Wogan points out that he "never apologised for being Irish even when the most appalling things were being done in the name of Ireland over here", he has become a British institution. As a schoolboy he loved the Just William stories and listened to the BBC Light Programme. P G Wodehouse is his favourite author. "Speaking as an Irishman, the humour and whole ironic/cynical attitude (of the radio show) is peculiarly British. It's not something you would get even in Ireland where I worked for a long time," he says.

Wogan especially comes into his own at the Eurovision Song Contest, which he has hosted for 33 years, with a growing sense of disbelief. "It's got more and more spectacular, grown to ridiculous proportions, with semi-finals. I always said it would keep me in my declining years, turning out like the World Cup with preliminary rounds," he says. He caused outrage in Denmark one year by describing the Danish presenters as "Dr Death and the Tooth Fairy", to the horror of Danes listening via the BBC and not sharing Wogan's scepticism at the artistic merit of the event.

On the back page of this supplement, media figures are asked to say who they most admire in this industry. Recent respondents have included Graham Norton ("Terry Wogan because he works very hard and earns every penny he gets from the BBC. I wish he was on more"), and Chris Tarrant ("Terry Wogan because he's still the best and probably the nicest"). He has also been nominated by Virgin's Christian O'Connell and Radio 2 controller Lesley Douglas ("the broadcaster of his generation and one of the nicest, most amusing people I've ever met"). Chris Evans, who produced his unsuccessful channel Five daytime show Terry and Gaby, adores him.

David Icke does not appear to share these views, as he walks huffily off stage at the end of his interview. He is generously applauded by the studio audience, which includes a number of Togs, some of them perhaps empathising a little with Icke's sense of distrust and bewilderment at the modern world. Icke storms into the green room saying: "He's a nasty, nasty man. Icke has his revenge!"

And although Terry Wogan would have found it difficult to have enjoyed his usual cosy interview with such an intensely strange interviewee, they may have shared a little common ground. For when Wogan is asked about the serious issues that attract his attention when he is not entertaining his audience with "Terryisms", he responds promptly.

First, he talks of his concerns over the ongoing conflict in Iraq, comparing the current urban terror with the experiences of the British Army in Northern Ireland ("It seems that nobody thought specifically about what to do after the event") and pondering whether America will take military action against Iran.

Then he speaks of a favourite book, State of Fear by Michael Crichton, in which the author suggests that, after the Cold War, the powers that be have an interest in keeping the masses scared. "Look at avian flu - the chances of this affecting us in one way or another is highly negligible. We had Sars and mad cow disease before that. Every year we have to have something to strike terror," says the Grand Togmeister.

Still, at least now we have Wogan on radio and television, using his unique line in patter to keep us laughing and hold the nastiness at bay. Now didn't somebody have a theory about that, back in 1991?

ON EUROVISION

'It's got more and more spectacular, grown to ridiculous proportions'

ON HIS INTERVIEWING TECHNIQUE

'It's not life or death. It's not an argument, only showbusiness - not Jeremy Paxman time'

ON HIS RADIO 2 SHOW

'The humour and whole ironic/cynical attitude is peculiarly British'

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