When Sir Terry Wogan signed off his last breakfast show on Friday with the words “thank you for being my friend”, there must have been a run on Kleenex up and down the land.
Terry has been breakfast companion to millions since 1972. It’s an extraordinary achievement: no wonder our prime minister took time off from saving the planet in Copenhagen to pay him a eulogy, speaking of how much he and Sarah will miss him. Actually, I suspect the Browns are more likely to have the Today programme on over their porridge, but the tribute would have gone down well with Wogan’s potential 8 million voters. Such is Wogan power. But what was special about Terry was not his influence or vast audience but his unique sense of responsibility and humility towards his listeners.
“This is the day I have been dreading”, he said, as he told of his pride that his audience thought of him as “a friend, close enough to laugh with and occasionally, when the world seemed just a little too cruel, to shed a tear with”.
Radio is an intensely personal medium. Those who tune in at that time of the morning, with their radios in their kitchens or their bedrooms, are inviting a stranger into their lives. The morning show is vitally important because the person you share your first cup of tea or coffee with is the most important person in your life. Which is why the appointment of Chris Evans as Wogan’s replacement is such a risk for Radio Two.
Most radio presenters are just that, “presenters”: the listener tunes in and is presented to. There’s an obligation to treat the audience to a performance, ranging from the arrogant to the bland. In America they call presenters “hosts”; they expect the audience to come and enjoy their party. Wogan was neither. He alone understood the special relationship that can be forged between listener and broadcaster. He became, for a few magical hours each morning, a “friend”.
Chris Evans is a great host, but he’s nobody’s friend. His self-importance and contempt for his listeners was evident on Friday when he was asked about the Wogan succession. “He’s not a hard act to follow; he’s a hard act to beat and compete with,” crowed Evans, clearly seeing it as a competition for ratings and redemption. “This is the ultimate chance,” he claimed excitedly, “the drive in the Ferrari”. When Evans takes over in the New Year, the BBC has given him an extra half hour on air, presumably in order to increase the audience “reach”, and thereby cushion his ratings, the only way Evans measures his own rehabilitation.
Like any great event in history, Terry’s final fadeout was a memorable moment so I was determined to record what I was doing at the precise moment of his departure.
He was just saying the words “thank you for allowing me to share your lives with you”, as I was driving underneath the Tyne Bridge. Suddenly I spotted a large body splashing in the river. It was breaking the surface and appeared to be waving frantically towards the shore. Sensing a call for help, or at the very least a scoop for the local paper, I pulled over to call the emergency services.
Then I realised that it was in fact a large grey seal, triumphantly sporting an enormous salmon in its mouth. I felt the urge to share this sight with someone and realised that if I’d been one of Terry’s Old Geezers, I would have dialed up his studio and be put straight on air. Whereupon I would probably have been gently teased by the great man for having imbibed too much nectar the night before. Whereas the Evans team would have launched a competition called “Weirdest Sightings”. That’s the difference.
Wogan will indeed be dearly missed.