Shy and lazy, that’s Terry Wogan, according to Terry Wogan. They’re not words you would readily associate with a 67-year-old who rises at 5.30 every morning so that he can ‘talk rubbish for two hours’ — as he puts it — for the benefit of nine million adoring radio listeners, who include ironically-minded students, large swathes of Middle England, and HM the Queen. Yet, as he elaborates, I realise he is, for once, being serious, if a little disingenuous.
It is mid morning, he has just come off air and we are sipping coffee in a dimly-lit bar around the corner from his Radio 2 studio in Broadcasting House. He is looking defiantly beige: beige socks, beige cords, beige polo neck. Defiantly, because there is something quietly subversive about Sir Terry. He ignores fashion. He mocks modern, Metropolitan manners. He crosses picket lines. He is even rude about the BBC, his employers for almost 40 years. He can afford to be. Much as it might pain them at times, they know that he knows where the centre of gravity is in this country — that is, pretty much wherever Terry Wogan happens to be standing.
‘I always had a clear idea of who the audience was and what I ought to be doing to get them to identify with me,’ he says in a subdued voice with shoulders hunched and hands pressed between his knees. ‘I can’t stand it when presenters read out sycophantic letters about themselves. I would never read out a letter saying “love your show.” That not how friends are. Friends are mutually abusive. What I try to encourage is good natured, and sometimes ill natured, badinage. I will get the occasional letter saying: “Why don’t you shut up and go back to where you came from?” — and I will always read it out.’
Wake Up To Wogan regularly wins awards and has the largest audience of any radio programme in Europe. He looks uncomfortable when asked why he thinks this might be. When pressed, he says: ‘A lot of commercial stations think it is all about play lists, but why would you want to listen to a radio station for that? You can get that on your iPod. It’s the presenters people want to listen to. We’re not slaves to the music on my show.’ Realising this sounds a little pompous he adds: ‘Although I am a keen break dancer, as you know.’
But at least on his radio show he gets to deal with normal people, I point out. Later this month he will be returning to television to present his chat show, and that will mean having to deal with celebrities. A dreadful prospect surely?
He purses his lips. ‘That is right, and now you’ve made me question why I’m doing it.’ The show — Wogan: Now and Then — is a follow up to Wogan which began in 1985 and ran three times weekly for seven years. ‘The original show could be trying at times,’ he recalls. ‘I would find myself interviewing a Hollywood star who was the worse for illegal substances, one way or another, either monosyllabic and depressed, or hyperactive.’ There were some memorable English guests, though, from David Icke pronouncing himself the son of God, to a drunken Oliver Reed and a grumpy Prince Philip.
David Icke will be one of the guests reappearing in the new show. ‘You have to compliment the people who are prepared to come back on, particularly the women because they are going to be looking at themselves as they were 20 years ago. Notwithstanding the fact the at I am going to be looking at myself on a regular basis as well.’
Judging by the trailers for the new show — Wogan now apparently sitting opposite Wogan then — he hasn’t changed much. ‘It’s the plastic surgery,’ he says. ‘The miracle of Botox. I also have a bull clip at the back of my neck.’
Certainly his hair has aged well, refulgent and scarcely threaded with grey as it is. But what about his aggressive interviewing technique? Will that have changed with time? Does he think he has mellowed? He shows his dimples as he grins. ‘I know, I know, I would be criticised for bland interviewing. But how long would you last if you came on like Clive Anderson? How long did Clive Anderson last? If you are sharp and highly critical, pretty soon no one will want to come on. I mean, I was never going to risk Mrs Merton. I’d never risk going on Have I Got News for You? I’ve been asked several times.’
That, I say, surprises me. I hadn’t imagined he was so protective of his public image. Can we conclude from this that he is a vain man? ‘No, it’s not vanity. It’s that someone else has the edit. It’s not a live show. It is edited to show Paul and Ian in a favourable light.’
Surely an ego as healthy as his can take a bit of ribbing? ‘No one wants to come out looking like an eejit. Of course they don’t. Anyway, it’s not the teasing. I could stand that. But I couldn’t stand my ripostes ending up on the cutting room floor.’
Hmm. Interesting. And judging by what he goes on to say, the ego jibe is clearly bothering him. ‘I never watch or listen to myself because I would find it embarrassing. I’ve got a very low threshold of embarrassment. I get embarrassed very easily. I used to hate it when females guests touched my knee.’
He’s not tactile? ‘Well I am, but on my own terms.’
Isn’t it masochist of him to be in the profession he is in, given his self-consciousness? ‘Yes it is. I am in the wrong business. But you evolve a technique for doing it. I hide behind technique. I would rather not see my audience, that is all.’
Interesting again. There is something about his television persona — the awkward body language, the coy looks to camera — that could just be an exaggeration of his natural shyness. ‘Exactly. This is why radio is more my medium that television. When I do occasionally catch a glimpse of myself on TV, it’s never me. There is what the ancient Greeks used to call “a hedge of teeth” getting in the way.’
Could he cope with the scrutiny of being a Celebrity Big Brother housemate? ‘God no, never. I never give enough of myself away. It’s the Irish thing. WB Yates. Never give your whole self away. Keep something back, always.’
So there is a dark side to Sir Terry’s character that he would rather the great British public did not see? ‘No, everyone is entitled to their privacy and their own thoughts. I’m not a loner exactly, but I was an only child for six and half years before my brother was born and you develop the ability to be alone. I’m not a gregarious person. My wife makes all our friends. I grew up in Limerick but had to leave all my friends there when we moved to Dublin, I then left all those friends when I came to London.’
His father ran a grocer’s shop in Limerick before becoming the director of a drinks firm. After leaving his (private) Jesuit school, the young Terry worked as a bank clerk in Dublin for five years. Then at 21, he entered and won a competition to become an announcer on RTE in Dublin. In 1967 he came to London to present Late Night Extra on BBC Radio 1.
Shyness is not incompatible with high self esteem, it seems. ‘It’s true. I don’t doubt myself much as a person. I think I’m all right. I can cope with disappoint and criticisms. There was no question that I felt loved by my parents. In fact I think for those first six years I was probably put on a pedestal by them. But, generally, my parents were shy people. Catholics in Ireland were taught that, after sex, vanity was the worst sin. You couldn’t show off. Looking in the mirror was anathema. If you scored a try in rugby you ran back to the half way line almost shame-faced because it was a team game. I’m still offended if I see someone score a try and punch the air.’
So the Wogan self-deprecation is authentic? ‘And so it should be. People always assume that self deprecation is a way of messaging your own ego or fishing for compliments. Not in my case. I get embarrassed by praise.’
I’m curious to know how he squares this lack of vanity and aversion to showing off with the success he has enjoyed in his cut-throat profession. Surely he has had to be controlling and ruthless and tetchy and prima donaish and ambitious? ‘No, no, no. That’s a cliché it itself. You don’t have to be any of those things at all. You don’t need to be pushy or nasty or confrontational to get on.’
I bet he can be a bit. ‘No, honestly. I’m not ambitious. I’ve never knocked on a door and said: “Give me a job”. I don’t fuss about the hole in a studio carpet. I can be impatient and fastidious, I suppose, but I’m not the kind of person who shouts at people.’
Don’t people take advantage of him, then? ‘No, I’m not stupid. No one takes advantage of me.’
This said, Terry Wogan has at times felt undervalued at the BBC. Its young, Guardian-reading, black-wearing, Soho House dwelling executives tend to faun over cool and intellectual presenters such as Jeremy Paxman. Wogan nods. ‘They do think I’m uncool, and they are probably right.’ He also concedes that 1993 was the lowest point in his career. That was when his TV show was axed by the BBC and replaced by the doomed soap Eldorado. It was a humiliating experience and, understandably, he felt vindicated when he took over the Radio 2 breakfast show and increased its listener figures from three million to nine million. But he is in magnanimous mood today. ‘I hope I have their respect. They don’t abuse me. We come to mutual agreements.’
It occurs to me that it may partly be laziness that has kept him at the BBC. ‘There were always things I wanted to do,’ he says. ‘I would have loved to have been a journalist, for example, but I never did anything about it, I drifted into the bank instead. I never pursued things. I could have gone to university but I felt I’d done enough. I’m lazy. I have so little capacity for working hard. I like to do programmes live simply because I’m lazy. I hate rehearsal.’
What’s going to be in his autobiography? ‘Well, I’ve nearly finished it. It’s inconsequential. It’s only a life: me and my family and what I do.’
He married Helen, a house model for Balmain, in 1965. The two of them were virgins on their wedding night. They celebrated their ruby wedding last year. What, I ask, is the secret to a healthy marriage? ‘You sound like a man who has been through a few.’
Me? No. Just the one. ‘Of course,’ he says with a laugh. ‘I was forgetting. You’re married to a Catholic aren’t you?’ I nod. ‘That means you can’t get out of it. There’s no secret,’ he adds. ‘It’s luck. You do sometimes take each other for granted but as long as you’re aware that your taking each other for granted it’s OK. Consideration is the key. The things we argue about are so small and petty, like, “Where are me socks?”. Helen is my confidante. She knows me so well.’
So he daren’t leave her! All that stuff she could tell the tabloids… ‘No, she never would. When we married there was never going to be anything else. I always used to tell her at the time she married me that she was the luckiest woman in Ireland.’ He grins to show he’s joking.
The couple have three children, now in their 30s: Alan, Mark, and Katherine — who once said she grew up fearing her friends only wanted to be with her because of her famous father. I ask Sir Terry if he thinks his children suffered because he was in the public eye. ‘I don’t know. I kept my own name when in retrospect it would have been easier on my children if I had changed it and taken a nom de plume. But they’ve coped very well. They seem happy. We’ve got two married now and the elder boy is walking out. He works with The Sanctuary, Katherine was an actress for a while and is a full time mother now and my second son Mark works at the agency which represents me. He’s very good at it. Terrific networker. Don’t know how he does it.’
Was he a strict father? “No, I always thought that would be a mistake. Parents assume their children are going to be the same as them, with the same drives and standards and they are not, of course. You’re children are always going to be a permanent surprise to you.’
Do they tease him? ‘They do, but I never talk about what I do when I’m at home. Well, I do a bit now Mark is in the business. But I think they were vaguely ashamed of me when they were at school and I was doing Wogan.’
Ashamed? ‘Well you don’t want your father on television. Makes you a target. I didn’t envy them. Children want to be conventional. Teenagers don’t want attention drawn to them. It gave them though, I hope, an extra layer of character.’
Teenagers might not want attention drawn to themselves, but I’m pretty sure that, for all his protestations to the contrary, Sir Terry does. Perhaps that is the thing he wants to ‘keep back’. His self-deprecation, after all, clearly, comes from an underlying security, a robust sense of who he is and of his own value. He may not have a dark secret, but he does, as he admits, have a ‘technique’ he can hide behind: the easy laugh, the folksy charm, the whimsy. He hams up the public Terry Wogan – the conceit that he is an innocent just arrived off the boat from Ireland. Yet in private, I have heard, he can be quite serious-minded and bookish, as well as puritanical and scornful. He is also more sophisticated that he likes to let on: a wine connoisseur with a second home in France and a sizable commercial property portfolio. Shy and lazy? I don’t think so.