I remember running into work once because of a tube strike. On went the barely-used tracksuit bottoms and a faded T-shirt. Shattered by the end, I just about made the six miles from my home in west London: jogging across Hyde Park to the Radio 2 building at Oxford Circus.
Out of breath and bathed in sweat, I stumbled into BBC reception. To my embarrassment, as I waited for the lift, another figure joined me ― Sir Terry Wogan, on his way to present the breakfast show, wearing a perfectly-pressed cream linen suit.
The two of us got into the cramped Radio 2 elevator. Me sweaty; him as cool as a cucumber, carrying his leather briefcase. Terry was going to the sixth floor where his studio was located, and I was about to press the lift button for the second when I looked at my watch.
“Good grief, Terry,” I said. “It’s twenty-eight minutes past. You’re on the air in two minutes.”
He replied, “Yes, I’m early this morning.”
Concerned that stopping for my floor might make him late, I say we should go straight to the sixth so he can get out of the lift first.
“Fine by me!” he says cheerfully in that famous baritone.
He exits at the sixth and I go down to my office and turn the radio on. The news ends, the Radio 2 jingle plays and the voice we all knew so well says, “Hello, it’s Terry Wogan.”
He then tells his listeners — “You know, one of the great things about a tube strike is that you get to meet your colleagues in the strangest places. So in the lift this morning, there was Jeremy Vine. Just finished a six-mile run from Hammersmith. And believe me ―” here he pauses, as if inhaling deeply ― “you could tell.”
Standing in my office, I remember thinking: that is the genius of Wogan. He arrives to do his breakfast show with seconds to spare, and the first link is something that happened in the lift. And the subtlety, too ― he never said, “Vine was drenched in sweat, and he ponged something terrible.” He just stopped for an instant as if finally able to breathe fresh air, and the point was made.
I first heard him on the breakfast show when I was six years old. I vividly remember him playing “Waterloo” by Abba on a tiny transistor radio in the kitchen before school. He was the voice on the school run too, morning after morning. Imagine how it felt for me, thirty years later and with a deep love of radio, to join Wogan’s station and be able to get to know the man in person.
What can I say about him? If you ever heard or watched Wogan, there is not much I can add: you already knew him. The Wogan I met was courteous and friendly, as well as hugely encouraging to the new boy on Radio 2 (which he did not have to be). A person cannot do half a century at the top of broadcasting if they have two different selves, one for the show and one for the rest of life. Wogan’s kindness and sincerity were real.
There was a beautiful moment when the Queen visited Broadcasting House in the nineties. “How long have you worked here?” she asked Terry, who was part of the official welcome. He replied: “Your majesty, nobody works here.” It was a nod to the beautiful chaos of the BBC (his longest-running jokes were always at the expense of the management), but also to the love Terry felt for his job. Which was not a job at all.
There is a strong argument that he is the greatest music broadcaster since the invention of the microphone. His fame was partly through television, but TV is obsessed with what is new; radio thrives on continuity. In television you need one show to make history; in radio it is ten thousand. Radio gave Terry longevity and it was the innate intimacy of the medium that caused him to be so loved.
For me, it all boiled down to an answer Terry gave when someone asked him how many people listened to his breakfast programme. At the time it was breaking records, and he could easily have said nine million.
But his answer was different. “Only one.”
Which was the approach that made him great. If you ever heard Sir Terry Wogan speak on the radio, you believed he was speaking only to you.
(This story was written for the Daily Mail)