Belfast Telegraph

The real Terry Wogan was well hidden behind torrent of words

Interviewing Terry Wogan was like throwing balls at a bouncy castle. Any question I asked simply bobbed against the structure and came sailing back without anything much resembling an answer.

Granted, the experience was enjoyable in the moment. But it was a little insubstantial on reflection.

It took a while to work out that questions were being batted away because of all the words. What a torrent of them there was. Words shaped into stories and quips giving the impression of a conversation, all delivered with a smile, a chuckle or a self-deprecating shrug.

There was no shortage of words. But not words that revealed much about the man behind the light entertainment host viewed in Britain as a national treasure.

I've never exited an interview so baffled at my inability to pin someone down, yet bathed in the subject's geniality. He was affable and relaxed - while choosing to say as little as possible in as pleasant a manner as he could.

It was an art form, and he spent a lifetime on television and radio perfecting it.

The deal was that he would give the interview to promote his three-evenings-a-week BBC chat show, while I'd use the time to try and get under the Woganmobile bonnet.

Much later, I read a piece in which he reproached some of his chat show guests for agreeing to be interviewed and then saying nothing. But I suppose when Wogan decided to say nothing, he did it with more charm and style than most people can draw on.

Of course, the chat show had been taken off air by the time he voiced his criticism, and there was nothing to lose by allowing some exasperation to glint through the bonhomie. When we met in the early 1990s, however, the series was still running and he didn't want to deter prospective guests.

My editor sent me to engage with him on the basis that he'd open up to another Irish person - the real Terry Wogan would emerge from the light entertainment host's cocoon. Dream on. The Irish card didn't work.

Nor did the local card. I knew Limerick reasonably well, because my mother came from the county, and by way of breaking the ice I mentioned some places of interest in his hometown. It generated no interest that I could detect.

The one subject which exercised him, just briefly, before he settled back into amiable banter, was the IRA bombing campaign in London. There had been a number of explosions in the previous year or two, including mortar shells launched at the rear garden of 10 Downing Street, and he expressed vigorous opposition to the Provos' operations. England was good to him, he said.

Indeed, it was. He lived in some style on a large property surrounded by acres of land in Taplow, Buckinghamshire - a picture-postcard Home Counties' village within easy commuting distance of the BBC.

Unfortunately, that's not where we met. It would have been interesting to see him in his home environment. Instead, we sat in a fairly Spartan room in the BBC's Television Centre in London.

Opposite me was a smiley, red-faced man who wore a V-necked pullover stretched tight over a rounded tummy, like a prosperous businessman in his fifties who enjoyed the finer things in life. There was, undoubtedly, a shrewd mind behind those twinkling eyes. But he was determined to keep things light.

I remember noticing his large, capable hands - hands inherited from men who knew how to wield a shovel. I remember, too, puzzling at how someone so avuncular could be such a star of the airwaves.

That mystery was cleared up soon after, when I returned to observe him in action as a member of the studio audience on the live chat show. There was an instant, almost tangible, rapport between Wogan and audience. The programme attracted big stars, but he was often starrier than them, for all his modesty.

I can't finish without mentioning his hair. British people - or perhaps it was simply the British media - were obsessed by whether or not he wore a toupee. Setting off to interview him, I was instructed to study his head for signs of a hairpiece.

I was mystified. "Wogan just has Irish hair," I said. "It's thick and springy. I know lots of people in Ireland with hair like that."

"Nonsense," they said, "he's bald on top and wears a wig to hide it. He doesn't want to admit it because of working in television."

And so, to my shame, while we were talking I found myself sneaking peeks at the Wogan pate. His hair was plentiful, with a low side parting like Prince Charles's, with grey threaded through the black.

Returning to the office, I announced I could now categorically deny that Wogan wore a hairpiece. "He just flattens it into submission but it bounces back up," I explained.

Everyone rolled their eyes and claimed I was blinded by loyalty to another Irish person abroad. They really didn't want to abandon the toupee theory - perhaps because they thought Terry Wogan had to be hiding something. He was too good to be true, they insisted.

They loved him, all the same. He fitted into the British view of what an Irishman should be: loquacious, whimsical, warm and humorous - they found him non-threatening. He was, as we know, a consummate broadcaster who managed to make what he did look easy. In a way, he became a professional Irishman for his British audience. I wonder if the role didn't irritate him, occasionally? Or if he accepted the quid pro quo?

Occasionally, I was asked if Irish people minded that he worked for the BBC rather than RTÉ. Aren't you sorry you lost him was the subtext?

Well, no, I used to say. Gay Byrne is still in Ireland, and Pat Kenny is coming up behind him. Some people are happy to make it in their own country, and others want a broader canvas.

Martina Devlin, Irish Independent

Irish Independent


From Belfast Telegraph