Exactly 50 years after his first words on the BBC, showbusiness stops to remember Terry Wogan

Chris Evans speaks during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey
Chris Evans speaks during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey
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IT WAS at a quarter past noon on a Tuesday in late September that a young Irishman sat nervously in front of the microphone at Broadcasting House.

As Pick of The Past, the sing-along programme that preceded him, faded to a close, he drew breath and intoned, “Welcome to Midday Spin.”

Joanna Lumley speaks during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

Joanna Lumley speaks during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

Few inside the corporation bothered to listen to his 45-minute guest appearance on what was still called the Light Programme. Fewer still would have wagered that 50 years later, almost to the minute, all of showbusiness would stop to remember and salute a personality whose incomparable voice had come to define the BBC itself.

Terry Wogan was already a minor celebrity in his native Ireland. But the state broad–caster, RTE, was an unreliable source of employment, and the BBC’s bigger, broader audience proved impossible to resist.

Within a year of that first Midday Spin, the Light Programme would be washed away on a tide of pirate pop stations, replaced by Radios One and Two, and Wogan hired as part of a presenting team that would set the tone of popular broadcasting for a generation.

But he was more than just a disc jockey. He aged and grew as his audience did, radiating such warmth and friendship that millions could close their eyes and believe he was talking just to them.

Sir Terry Wogan

Sir Terry Wogan

Today, everyone who was ever anyone in the entertainment business gathered at Westminster Abbey, to hear Chris Evans, his successor on Radio Two’s breakfast show, call him the best there had been.

“Terry Wogan wasn’t the best,” he said. “He is the best and he will always be the best.”

Evans said he had once asked his mentor whether he ever prepared, even a little, for his daily broadcast.

“It’s very simple,” Sir Terry told him, somewhat incredulously. “They either like you or they don’t.”

Katie Melua performs during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

Katie Melua performs during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

The service of thanksgiving, eight months after his death at 77, was punctuated by Sir Terry’s distinctive Irish brogue, captured in extracts from an archive that covered every facet of broadcasting.

His three children and his wife, whom he described as “the present Lady Wogan”, were among those listening to performances by Katie Melua, whose name he had done much to promote, and Peter Gabriel, who sang a moving rendition of That’ll Do, the final song to be played on Wogan’s breakfast show.

Tony Hall, the BBC’s director general, whose predecessor 50 years ago was unlikely even to have noticed that debut on Midday Spin, was among those addressing the congregation.

It was, he said, Sir Terry’s acerbic stewardship of the Eurovision Song Contest over three decades that had cemented his reputation as a national treasure - an over-used compliment, he acknowledged, but more than justified here.

Claudia Winkleman leaves Westminster Abbey, London, following the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan.

Claudia Winkleman leaves Westminster Abbey, London, following the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan.

”Who knows what hellish future lies ahead?” Sir Terry had asked before the 2007 event. “Actually I do - I’ve seen the rehearsals.”

But it was his patronage of the BBC charity Children In Need that elevated him beyond the status of mere entertainer. It almost certainly owes its continued existence to him, and when they handed around the Abbey’s collection plate today, no-one doubted where the money would be going.

It was on the annual live telethon in 1983 that the actress Joanna Lumley stripped down to her underwear as Sir Terry pretended to yawn. Today, she stole the show again with a poem for him, co-written with songwriter Sir Richard Stilgoe, and titled, For The Former Greatest Living Irishman.

“If he was here I’d kiss his handsome face/And tell him that they simply broke the mould/ When he was made.”

Other stars at the event included Alan Titchmarsh, Michael Ball, Rory Bremner, Jimmy Tarbuck, Judith Chalmers and June Whitfield. But even they were upstaged by the 500 of Sir Terry’s loyal listeners to have been allocated tickets... and the 14,000 more who had applied.

• THE broadcasting landscape on to which Sir Terry stepped out that day in September 1966 was almost unrecognisable from the one we know today.

Peter Gabriel performs during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

Peter Gabriel performs during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

Wogan was followed later on the Light Programme by the venerable Yorkshire broadcaster Wilfred Pickles presenting his quiz, Have A Go, from a Town Hall in Cornwall. Other music programmes included “London’s lunchtime record rendezvous”, Pop Inn, and, to close, Strings By Night.

On TV, meanwhile, there was Steptoe and Son, but BBC Two’s main evening offering, at 9.25, was a film looking at “the lives and attitudes of women in Britain today”, entitled Women, Women, Women.

BBC Director-General Tony Hall at the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan

BBC Director-General Tony Hall at the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan

Stevie Spring, Chairman of BBC Children In Need, speaks during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan

Stevie Spring, Chairman of BBC Children In Need, speaks during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan

The Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

The Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

A general view of guest during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan

A general view of guest during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, speaks during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, speaks during the Service of Thanksgiving for Sir Terry Wogan at Westminster Abbey