The memorial to Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey on 27 September will of course be a fitting tribute to the man. For me, however, his living memorial is Children in Need.
When I became Controller of BBC1 in 1984, Children in Need wasn’t the huge telethon it is now – it was little bits of programming in between other shows. I thought we should give over the whole channel and do it properly – make an event out of it. And the only man to present that was Terry – and for one simple reason.
People trusted him. In fact, they trusted Terry so much they would be very happy to send him their money.
Over the years Children in Need has raised over £638 million, but today it’s easy to forget that giving on such a scale had never happened before in British broadcasting – and finding someone viewers would give their money to wasn’t easy. Of course, once Terry got hold of Children in Need, it just took off and he was so proud of what it became.
I first met him when I was at LWT in 1981 and tried to poach him for our new early evening show. Then, in February 1985, I was at the BBC and there was a plan for Terry to do a late-night chat show three times a week.
I felt that wasn’t playing to his strengths – he had a huge appeal to the family audience, the Blankety Blank audience and the radio audience so we would get better for Terry in the early evening. I also had to launch EastEnders, so we did a revamp of the network with Wogan on three nights a week at 7pm. Naturally, Terry made a huge success of it.
Why? First of all he was a very good listener. Secondly, he was witty. And finally, crucially, people trusted him. That word trust again. It was never difficult to say to a star, would you do an interview with Terry Wogan? They were pleased to do it. He had very relaxed delivery – very intimate, very quiet. He never went over the top and the camera loved him.
I suppose you could say he was a TV personality. I hate that phrase because it rather undersells his talent. He was a great broadcaster and absolutely nothing could throw him. One of his great strengths was that if things were going wrong, he’d own up. He wouldn’t try and pretend to the viewers that everything was fine. He told you the truth – even if it made him look silly.
That was the beauty of him hosting the Eurovision Song Contest. He told the truth. He did it with charm and dignity but he’d say – ‘Well, this is a load of old tosh, isn’t it?’ And we’d say, ‘You’re absolutely right, Terry’.
That’s why he was so successful on radio. Who likes getting up in the morning? Chasing the kids, catching the train, another slog. We all need cheering up in those depressing hours. Enter T Wogan.
Warm, gentle, smiling – a voice as unmistakable as it was soft and as sweet as Irish rain. He was the nation’s cheery neighbour who created his own world for an hour or two each day, which made our day that bit more tolerable.
With Terry, the man you saw and heard on television and radio was the man you played golf with. There was no veneer, no sense of putting on a performance. On and off air he was very funny and gentle and sweet and charming and interested and keen and not given to histrionics at any time. He was a joy to work with, a joy to be with socially.
And that’s what everyone picked up on. I knew him very well – but so did everyone else. There was nothing I discovered that the audience didn’t already know. He was authentic – the real deal. If you’re authentic, people will trust you and trust is as valuable a thing in broadcasting as it is in life. We would do well to remember that.
Radio 2 celebrates Terry Wogan on Tuesday from 11.30am, including the live memorial service from Westminster Abbey at 12 noon. Terry Wogan Remembered is on Friday BBC1 at 9pm
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