Terry Wogan has died, age 77. This is an extract from a 2007 Matthew Parris article in the Spectator, who looked at an under-examined aspect of his genius: his voice.
Terry Wogan is simply the greatest light broadcaster who ever lived. Millions of words have been written on his genius, and I shall not add to them. There can never quite be another. But many years ago, when Radio Two chiefs were looking for a presenter to occupy the remaining hours of the weekday morning, they do seem to have been looking for another Wogan. What, they must have asked, are the essentials of Woganism? Middle-aged, middle-class white man; unthreatening; self-deprecating; good humour; gentle wit; musing style; sympathetic but teasing manner; and — and this is important — a non-southern-English accent.
Wogan’s is Irish. Ken Bruce’s is Scottish. Both accents are as gentle as they are distinct. Both men have voices of similar timbre. In fact it is possible to switch on Bruce, hear a little Celtic banter, and think for a moment that it is Wogan. And I’ll bet there were people who, when Bruce took the presenter’s chair, said, ‘Ah — great mistake. You can’t copy Wogan. Bruce will just be second-best. We should have had a contrast.’
We English, the vast majority of their radio audience, are unable to place their accents in class terms. There are, of course, upper and lower class accents in Ireland and Scotland, but the English do not know how to read them and distinguish. With the possible exception of a thick Glaswegian accent or deep Irish brogue, Scots and Irish accents are classless to English ears. This enables us men to relax and stop feeling threatened. The same is true of the male American, Canadian and Australian voices we warm to on the BBC.
The conclusion is clear. If you want to get on in British broadcasting, son, choose Dublin or Edinburgh for your university education, and try to pick up the accent.