When I read on Twitter that Sir Terry Wogan had been killed in a freak accident that involved a Scalextric I was both saddened and surprised. I had interviewed him just a few days earlier and, as jocular as he was, I had trouble picturing him as the kind of man who would play with toy cars – even if electrocution via Scalextric might seem like a fittingly silly way to go for a bloke who had spent a large portion of his career inhabiting the bonkers world of Eurovision.
It is a relief, then, to catch up with Sir Terry and discover that he is alive and well, having just celebrated his 73rd birthday with an ice-cream cake complete with candles, though just the three. “Had there been another 70, I am pretty sure that the cake would have melted.”
As for the greatly exaggerated claims of his death… well, like the old Irish rogue that he is, Sir Terry has taken it on the chin. His name had started to trend on the website after he appeared on Never Mind the Buzzcocks, and before long Twitter users had killed him off. “It’s a sore point,” he says, “because it would seem that now, when I appear on television, people wish me dead. But I don’t even own a Scalextric. I’m not very good with cars. They rebel against me. So I suppose if I did have a Scalextric it would be quite on the cards.”
Sir Terry is one of the few people whose private persona is just like his public one. “Is he a jolly old fart?” asked one friend, and I guess he is, though in the nicest possible way: warm, funny, with a voice that smiles and carries you away on to a fluffy cloud. He is on fine form when we meet at 11 on a sunny morning in the bar of a central London hotel.
“Gin and tonic? Martini?” He is joking and opts for a coffee, though he readily admits that alcohol is his big vice. “Done plenty of drinking, not much fighting,” he chuckles. And what about groupies? (He was one of Ireland’s first television stars). “Ah, I don’t think so. Irish women don’t give much away.” He looks in to his coffee cup. “Also, expensive drinkers.”
Anyway, he has a vodka and tonic every day, though not until 6.30pm (“We must have standards”), and then: “I am forever forgetting where I have put my glass, blaming people for drinking it when it is usually resting on the piano.”
Still, he is very aware of his mortality. “It’s only a matter of time before it all starts to fall apart, before things start to fall off.” He explains that he is a mesomorph. “Short legs, long body. The kind of person who in the Middle Ages would come up over the hill on his horse and they’d say 'Get Wogan’, and I’d be there with my shield, the first to die.”
So he has an exercise regime that he tries to follow. “I try to swim for 30 minutes and walk for 30 minutes, because if I don’t, my finely honed body will slip into its old ways.” A sly smile.
We are here to talk about his work presenting the Last Night of the Proms, in Hyde Park, which he has done for 15 years. He enjoys it because it is live, and there is nothing he loves more than live (his chat show, Wogan, went out as such). This, despite the odd occasion when the orchestra isn’t ready and he is left pacing the stage “trying to be like Michael McIntyre, trying to distract the audience from the fact that I can’t think of anything to say, and thinking 'for Chrissake get on with it! I’m dying here!”
He jokes that with Eurovision, he was used to “music of a far higher standard”. Does he miss it, since handing over the reins to Graham Norton in 2008? “No. I’m terribly shallow. I don’t miss things once I have stopped doing them and I don’t miss people when I stop seeing them.”
It was his own decision to give up Eurovision, just as it was his hugely popular Radio 2 breakfast show a year later, thus disappointing a legion of "Togs". But, as he says: “I like to anticipate what the public think before they actually start to think it. I leave parties early. It’s important to do that.”
He learnt this at his own cost when, in the early Nineties, he turned around to the BBC and told them he thought it was time to walk away from Wogan, the chat show he presented three nights a week, live, thus making the likes of Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton (both do pre-records) look like mere minnows.
“But they said, 'No, no, it’s 150 programmes a year and we can’t do without you.’ Little did I know that at the time they were building a village in southern Spain to replace me.” And replace him with Eldorado they did, with disastrous consequences.
Does he have any sympathy for women who tend to be thrown on to the television scrapheap once they reach a certain age? “No,” he says, bluntly. “I’m afraid it’s reality, isn’t it? Nobody wants to look at an old woman. I know they don’t much want to look at an old man, either, and I think there are probably too many old fellas on the television. There must be a law of diminishing returns that sets in with telly. You can get on with radio because the voice doesn’t age much.
“I remember someone saying to me, right at the start of my career, that there are three things that can change when you are on television. The first, and the least important, is that the public get tired of you. The second is that you get tired of you. But the third, and this one is the most important, is that the people upstairs get tired of you. If the producers decide you’re a busted flush then you have to accept it. It’s a risky business and if I’d wanted a permanent and pensionable position I would have stayed in the bank.”
Ah yes. The bank. Sir Terry, who would rather we dropped the niceties of his knighthood (“when I look at me and Bruce [Forsyth] and Michael [Parkinson] I do think, 'What are we all doing with these things that we scarcely deserve?”), used to work in one before he got into Irish radio and then television.
It was as a star that he met his wife of 46 years, Helen, who at the time was a model. “I’ve been very lucky. In Ireland at the time there was no divorce, so you took your time. Our eyes met across a crowded room. There was this extraordinary, red-haired woman who had been let down by her boyfriend. She came with me for a quick soup and sandwich at a place called Scottys, which was the only place open at one in the morning in Dublin, and I gave her a lift home in my Morris Minor. And that was it.”
They live in Buckinghamshire and are now grandparents “which is exactly the same as being a father”.
Later, we talk about his favourite guest on Wogan. It was James Stewart. “He thought everyone was OK in Hollywood. He was an innocent person who merely saw the best in people, and so he was armoured. He was armoured against all badness. really. That’s the kind of man he was.”
Is it the kind of man Sir Terry is? Is he armoured? He thinks for a bit. “I’m an optimist. I reject failure.”
What would his epitaph be? “Be Kind. Because kindness is the most important thing.”
Article via The Telegraph