For once, the superlatives that have greeted Terry Wogan’s death from cancer have been entirely in keeping with the man. He did truly touch the lives of millions, understanding that the essence of radio, what makes it so individual among technologies, is the way it connects us, person to person, in a single moment of time. Wogan had the knack of making us believe that we were having a private conversation with him in that moment. In his own way he was also an artist, of language, of the music of words, of radio itself, constantly surprised by the strangeness of strangers, the oddities of everyday life, the idiocy that lurks beneath most big organisations.
Long before Twitter or Facebook, he understood back in the 1970s that for his breakfast show on Radio 2 to have a real impact he needed to create a kind of continuous conversation with his listeners from day to day. Not just by establishing his own inventive running gags but by getting them to send in their thoughts, happenings, comments. Wogan fed off his listeners, his ‘TOGs’ as they liked to be known, his ‘Old Geezers and Gals’ (among whom no less than the Queen was proud to number herself). And they in turn fed off him, wanting more of him and less of the music, so appealing was his take on life, his irreverent commentary on the news and on what they had sent him in sackfuls of post.
‘You have allowed me to share your lives with you,’ he told us tearfully in his farewell broadcast on Radio 2 in 2009 (he carried on with a weekend show until last November). And he did, reading out his listeners’ messages, chatting with them on air, making them feel as important as he was himself. That was his enduring appeal; you never felt he was talking himself up or taking the mickey for the sake of a soundbite or a bit of self-promotion. It was all about cheering up the world not by avoiding its ugliness but by providing the most important antidote: unaffected, straight-from-the-heart, person-to-person communication.
Just to prove that there are many different ways of carving out a career on radio, one of Wogan’s fellow-presenters at Radio 2, Vanessa Feltz, was a guest on A Good Read this week (Radio 4, Tuesday). Feltz has her own ardent band of listeners, drawn in by her energy, her motormouth style, never lost for a word, always willing to use ten words where one is quite sufficient. Her effervescence is catching, if at times a little exhausting, as is her quick-witted way of looking at the world. Listening to her is like being whisked along by Eurostar rather than trundling through the countryside on a two-carriage branch line.
She was talking about a little-known novel by Dodie Smith (of 101 Dalmatians fame). But the fascination of this episode of the Radio 4 staple (now almost 30 years old and a must-listen for anyone on the look-out for their next good read) was not so much Feltz’s choice of book, which to my ears sounded as if it could be a trifle disappointing, but the energy with which she gave us her opinion. This is a woman who must never sleep — her Radio 2 show starts daily at 5 a.m., after which she trundles across to Radio London to mastermind their three-hour peak-time show, which starts at 7 — and yet she never sounds tired or harassed or jaded. Who else would describe Smith’s A Tale of Two Families as having ‘a surface deliquescence of exquisiteness’? Or denounce Hilary Mantel’s Beyond Black, which was the choice of the presenter Harriett Gilbert, as exuding ‘some kind of hideous odour’ which she feared leaving on her bedside table in case it poisoned her while she slept?
On Sunday morning, there was one of those radio moments when something happens on air that makes you stop whatever you are doing to listen with full attention. The news on Radio 4 had just finished and the next thing I heard was a solo voice singing unaccompanied the first words of ‘Amazing Grace’. Who was that singing with such burning intensity?
The voice it turned out belonged to a long-term prisoner in Long Lartin prison in Worcestershire, a high-security jail for those whose crimes are deemed of maximum threat to society. We could not of course be told the prisoner’s name but boy could he sing those lines, ‘I once was lost but now am found,/ Was blind, but now I see.’
The service that followed for Sunday Worship (produced by Philip Billson) allowed several of the prisoners to tell their stories, of how they had struggled to live with the knowledge of what they had destroyed and could not replace. Most of them know that they will never get out except through death. The chaplains, from all faith groups and none, have to help them cope and to provide unconditional support. I was left wondering what life in Long Lartin sounded like beyond the chapel but within those walls at least there was hope and some amazing singing.