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Sent a parcel bomb at the height of the Troubles - how Sir Terry won the hearts of Britain at a time when an Irish accent aroused deep suspicion

The passing of Sir Terry Wogan was followed by a string of tributes to one of the best known stars of radio and TV. Paul Hopkins remembers the Limerick-born man who ended up becoming a Knight of the Realm.

Published 01/02/2016

Friendly face: Terry Wogan
Friendly face: Terry Wogan
Terry Wogan with his wife Helen, daughter Katherine and their sons Alan and Mark
Battle royal: Sir Terry interviewing a combative Duke of Edinburgh on Wogan in 1986
Sir Terry keeping Kylie Minogue amused on Children in Need in 2010
Loving couple: Sir Terry with his wife Lady Helen in November

Sir Terry Wogan was once sent a parcel bomb at the height of the Troubles. The package was sent to him at the BBC's Broadcasting House and his producer picked up the bomb without realising what it was and carried the parcel to the post room.

"He nearly lost his job for trying to blow himself up," the veteran broadcaster revealed back in 2011. And in his inimitable style he noted: "Whoever sent in the bomb with my name on it couldn't have been much of a fan because I was on holiday at the time."

Wogan moved to England in 1969, just as the Troubles erupted. But he said he found nothing but acceptance. "However, it wasn't as easy for people in less privileged positions."

As his fame grew, he recognised that the 1970s were "not a great time to have an Irish accent in Britain".

But he "never apologised" for being Irish. "What was being done was not being done in my name… It was very difficult."

When the Birmingham bombs went off in 1974 he said he had to come up the following morning "with a cheerful Irish accent" but added: "I didn't feel any guilt because things being done in the name of Irish freedom were not being done by me or anyone I knew, or by the generations of Irish people who contributed to Britain.

"All I felt was an Irish voice must be hard for some people. Apart from that parcel bomb, I had the odd death threat, but I think that was only from discerning listeners," he typically quipped.

"Even allowing for the good nature and tolerance of the British, it is surprising that I have not been the butt of anti-Irish hatred."

If it was his gift of the gab that served to reinforce more positive preconceptions of the Irish - of wit, charm and good humour - some Irish people felt that Wogan went too far, viewing his cheerleading for the British entry as the BBC's Eurovision compere as the act of a Quisling taking the Queen's shilling, confusing his professionalism with a lack of patriotism.

In more recent years on the TV programme Wogan's Ireland, in one episode where he crossed from Donegal into Northern Ireland, remarking on the murals in Londonderry he recalled of the Troubles: "I have memories of several years ago crossing the border and it was no joke then.

Sir Terry Wogan as he announced he was stepping down from his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, he told listeners of the long-running and much-loved Wake Up to Wogan' that he would be stepping down at the end of the year to be replaced by Chris Evans.
Sir Terry Wogan as he announced he was stepping down from his BBC Radio 2 breakfast show, he told listeners of the long-running and much-loved Wake Up to Wogan' that he would be stepping down at the end of the year to be replaced by Chris Evans.
Sir Terry Wogan (second left on middle row) in 1967 with fellow disc jockeys ahead of the launch of the BBC's new Radio 1 and Radio 2 networks at Broadcasting House, London
Wogan presenting Blankety Blank in 1979
Sir Terry Wogan and his wife Helen with their baby daughter Katherine at three weeks old in 1972
Sir Terry Wogan in 1973 sampling an oyster at a reception to celebrate the opening of the oyster season at Scott's restaurant in London
Larry Hagman (left) with Sir Terry Wogan during his Radio 2 Breakfast Show in 1980
Sir Terry Wogan in 1981 with Diana Ross when she was a guest on his early morning BBC Radio 2 programme
Sir Terry Wogan (back) with Britain's entry into the Eurovision Song Contest Bardo (centre left and right), and members of pop group Bucks Fizz in 1982
Security men pretending to frogmarch Sir Terry Wogan from Broadcasting House in London as a humourous finale to his 12 years hosting the early morning BBC 2 radio breakfast programme in 1984.
Sir Terry Wogan popping up through a TV screen to the amusement of a policeman after he accepted 100 TV sets on behalf of the NSPCC from Phillips marking the making of the company's 100 millionth TV set (1984)
Sir Terry Wogan (centre) with his chatshow guests Tina Turner and Elton John in 1985
Sir Terry Wogan trying on a kilt before hitting the high road to the BBC pro-celebrity golf tournament at Turnberry, Scotland in 1985
Duke of Edinburgh (left) appearing with Sir Terry Wogan on the 'Wogan' chatshow in 1986
The interview on September 19, 1990 when Belfast footballer George Best appeared drunk as a guest on 'WOGAN'
Sir Terry Wogan (right) revealing his waxwork on his television show 'Wogan'
BBC's Ken Bruce (left) and Sir Terry Wogan enjoying an extra hour in bed before presenting their radio programmes from Millstreet, Ireland, the venue for the Eurovision Song Contest in 1993
Sir Terry Wogan meeting Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997
Sir Terry Wogan and his daughter Katherine at the Savoy Hotel in London, in 2001
Sir Terry Wogan with his wife Lady Helen, after the radio and television presenter collected his knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II in 2005
Sir Terry Wogan celebrating being given the Freedom of the City of London by single-handedly raising Tower Bridge
Sir Terry Wogan with fellow Eurovision host Natasha Kaplinsky (left) and winner Javine in 2005
Sir Terry Wogan with Pudsey the bear during a Children in Need photo call in 2008
Sir Terry Wogan meeting the Prince of Wales (left) at the Irish Embassy in London, in 2010
Sir Terry Wogan with a life-size cake replica made to mark the 30th anniversary of his presenting BBC Children in Need in 2009
Sir Terry Wogan (right), winner of 'Digital Radio Personality of the Year', with Chris Evans at the TRIC (Television and Radio Industries Club) Annual Awards, in 2010
Sir Terry Wogan with (left to right) Tess Daly, Alesha Dixon and Fearne Cotton during the BBC Children In Need Appeal 2011
Terry Wogan presents BBC One's in 2011
Sir Terry Wogan with a collection of Pudsey Bears designed by celebrities which were auctioned for Children in Need in 2013
Terry Wogan launching Children In Need on November 1, 2015 at the Landmark Hotel in London

"There were watchtowers, there were soldiers in the watchtowers, there was barbed wire… The border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was a dangerous place."

In his biography he recalled travelling also in Cookstown, Co Tyrone with his producer Paul Waters doing research for Wogan's Ireland. "As we drove through, watching everyday life freely intermingling with war, I said (to Paul): 'Of course, Cookstown is a Protestant town. A Protestant town, full of Protestants'. He (Walters) was aghast, having grown up in rural Hertfordshire, in secular England, where religious bigotry had disappeared along with church-going and Sunday school.''

The Protestants of Terry Wogan's youth growing up in the Republic were the last of the Ascendancy, the people of the Big House, and he never tried to hide his certain disdain for them.

He once said: "You could always tell a Protestant a mile away.

"In Limerick they did not have Limerick accents either, which was a dead giveaway."

For an Irishman Terry Wogan was a very British institution. Born in Limerick in the Republic in 1938, the son of a grocery store manager, he had a very strong religious upbringing, being schooled from the start by the Jesuits.

"There were hundreds of churches,'' he once said, "all these missions breathing fire and brimstone, telling you how easy it was to sin, how you'd be in hell. We were brainwashed into believing.''

But for all that, part of him has remained Limerick through and through. "Limerick never left me,'' he said. "Whatever it is, my identity is Limerick.''

A move to Dublin and Belvedere College was followed by a stint in banking in the north of the capital until he landed a job as a continuity announcer with the new Radio Telifis Eireann in the early Sixties.

He moved into the light entertainment department as a disc jockey and host of quiz and variety shows before taking over the quiz show Jackpot from Gay Byrne, who had moved on to host the inaugural Late, Late Show.

Cutbacks at the fledgling station saw him take the boat to England every other week in search of work with Auntie.

Gay Byrne had tested the waters as a young host on Granada TV's Scene at Six Thirty but, where Byrne failed, Wogan succeeded in capturing the hearts and ears and eyes of the 'people across the water'.

When the Radio Academy inducted him into its Hall of Fame in 2009, every breakfast show host, from John Humphreys to Doctor Fox, turned up to pay tribute. With such high ratings - eight million listeners - for so long until he stepped down in 2009, his programme had long since beaten all rivals into the ground. As someone said at that ceremony, maybe his departure from radio "will give the rest of them a chance".

The same year, at the British Comedy Awards, he was honoured with an award for lifetime achievement. He said it just showed that in his business "if you can stay upright and reasonably sober, they'll give you something in the end".

Oh, the modesty. Or at least that ironic Wogan self-deprecatory, acutely aware version of modesty, the one he deployed with utter and total brilliance.

There he was, a knight of the realm who had won enough prizes to fill a dozen mantelpieces, enough volumes of praise to buckle an attic floor, and he was doing "Who, me?"

He did it because he meant it. Sort of. He knew he was good at what he did and that we knew it too, but liked him all the more for not going on about it. Diffidence befitted the role in which we liked to see him and, indeed, he liked to see himself - the cheery fellow with a sharp eye for the ridiculous.

As a man whose favourite authors included PG Wodehouse, Flann O'Brien and James Joyce, he had a taste for words and a relish for their layers of meaning and the uncanny knack of trotting out small bursts of Greek, Latin, Gaelic, French and German while, he admitted, being fluent in none.

His love of language was implicit in his broadcasting style, and it was there also in the off-air man.

He listened, thought before speaking, and would light on a word or a sound that rang false or wrong. Though well-read and thoughtful, he did not pretend to scholarship, but was scholarly enough to note its pretence in others. His scorn, if rarely expressed, could be devastating.

He married teenage sweetheart Helen in April 1965 and in the Seventies settled down to family life in Taplow, Buckinghamshire. In December 1984, Wogan left his breakfast show to pursue a full-time career in television. In January 1993, he returned to BBC Radio 2 to present the breakfast show called Wake Up To Wogan.

His listeners liked to be known collectively as TOGS (Terry's Old Geezers [or Gals]), with subgroups dividing into IDIOTS (I Dream Incessantly of Terry Society), TWITS (Terry Wogan Is Tops Society) and, most improbably, TWINKLETOES (Terry Wogan Is Not Kinky Like Everyone Thinks Or Everyone Says).

His presence down the years on our TV screens, though, was formidable. There was Blankety Blank, Come Dancing and Children In Need (since its first airing in 1978 as a five-minute Christmas Day appeal) and his infamous mutterings on the annual Eurovision Song Contest, which he hosted from 1980 until 2008.

His live commentary often involved humour at the expense of others and caused some minor controversy. When he referred to the hosts of the 2001 contest in Denmark, Soren Pilmark and Natasja Crone Back, as Doctor Death and the Tooth Fairy, many UK viewers found his comments amusing - but they were a far cry from being universally liked.

The Danes were less than appreciative and Wogan often joked thereafter that he was banned from visiting Denmark.

As Chris Tarrant remarked back then: "Terry Wogan's commentary is why any sane person would choose to watch the Eurovision."

And, of course, there were his famous Wogan chat shows (1985-1992). Airing eventually three times a week, the series included interviews with a silent Chevy Chase, a nervous Anne Bancroft, Ronnie Barker announcing his own retirement while on air, and David Icke claiming to be the Son of God, to whom Wogan famously remarked: "They're laughing at you - they're not laughing with you.''

Wogan was undaunted when the Duke of Edinburgh, booked to explain the finer points of carriage driving, rudely accused him of reading other people's questions off cards.

Among his one-to-ones on Wogan was the show with a drunken George Best who infamously told him: "I spent half my fortune on women and drink, and the rest I squandered."

It was not the broadcaster's only link to Irish celebrity. He was instrumental in bringing Gloria Hunniford into the national limelight.

In 1981 she landed a stint standing in for Jimmy Young on his radio show. Part of the job involved a pre-programme banter with the master himself. Gloria proved an instant hit with all concerned and the following year she got her own Radio 2 show.

One morning, Hunniford tantalised listeners by saying that some of her male audience pictured her in black stockings and suspenders, sitting in the darkened studio with a silky dress split up the side. The mischievous Wogan then coined the memorable soubriquet 'Grievous Bodily Hunniford'.

Terry Wogan was widely credited with also launching the career of Northern Ireland's Katie Melua after he repeatedly played her debut single, The Closest Thing To Crazy, in late 2003.

When she performed on Children In Need in 2005, Wogan jokingly said to Melua: "You owe it all to me and maybe a little to your own talent."

According to figures leaked to British newspapers in April 2006, Wogan was the highest paid BBC radio presenter at that time, with an £800,000 a year salary. In an interview with Hello magazine the next month, Wogan confirmed this, saying: "The amount they said was true and I don't give a monkey's about people knowing it. Nor do I feel guilty. If you do the maths, factoring in my eight million listeners, I cost the BBC about 2p a fortnight. I think I'm cheap at the price."

His popularity in part was largely due to his 'lack' of an English accent, thus displaying no badge of class nor region.

The Queen once told him that she and Prince Philip were regular listeners to his morning radio show.

In 2014, he joined Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and David Cameron as the Queen's guest at a banquet at Windsor Castle in honour of a State visit by the Irish President.

Wogan was forced off air on February 16, 2007 when steam from a nearby gym set off fire alarms. For 15 minutes an emergency tape played non-stop music. On returning, Wogan read out several comments from listeners saying they thought he had died, with his sudden disappearance and the playing of such sentimental music.

Now, he has gone.

Perhaps the last word on the parting of a giant of broadcasting, a man capable of making us laugh at our own sense of self-importance, can be best summed up by the quip: "Heard the one about the Irishman who reminded the British of what they could be at their best?

"His name was Terry Wogan."

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