BELIEVE it or not, time was when Old Tel was at the very forefront of the pop music explosion, starting off as a DJ and game show host on Ireland’s RTE before setting sail for the mainland and winding up on The Light Programme’s pop-music-at-lunchtime-er-than-thou Midday Spin. When Radio 1 arrived he jumped ship (though not as literally as his ex-Pirate contemporaries, mind), oddly shunted into fairly offbeat Late Night Special slot before taking over afternoons at the tail-end of the sixties. At this time a combination of threadbare transmitter funding, GPO stringency and general internal Bring Back The Third Programme stuffiness still meant that Radios 1 and 2 shared a good deal of each other’s output, including Wogan’s show, and it was this familiarity to lovers of Levin-decried ‘weary pap’, combined with a growing sense that he was somewhat too square of persona and indeed wide of lapel to sit comfortably with the crowd wowing their audiences with Suzi Quatro and Atomic Rooster, meant that by early 1972 his taking over of 2’s Breakfast slot was pretty much a done deal.
And it was on 2, with his pisstake-friendly playlist, blaring ‘break’-festooned theme music, and general honing of refusal to take himself (or indeed anything) seriously and cultivation of whimsically dissenting “I don’t know what’s going on here but I wish it would stop” persona, that the Wogan Story really began. As the decade drew on, so the listening figures drew out, reaching ridiculous levels of popularity in tandem with an equally ridiculous amount of listener-adored running jokes, from the surreal semi-mocking references to humdrum encounters with prominent BBC ‘suits’, to audience-penned poems about ‘Wogan’ at large, to the not-at-all seriously intended Fight The Flab campaign, and most famously his tongue-in-cheek obsession with megabuck BBC TV import Dallas, the affectionate mockery helping ironically to boost viewing figures and even leading to the Wogan-dubbed ‘Poison Dwarf’ catching on as a national term of reference.
The music wasn’t much to get excited about, maybe, but his love of making fun even of records and artists he actually liked – an influence on DJs as diverse as Steve Wright and Chris Morris – was the real point, enough so that it almost made those endless airings for Kenny Rogers’ latest waxing tolerable. Almost. And that’s not even getting started on his habit of improvising ridiculous self-skewed lyrics over the top of records (oooh, going to reach for your lawyers again, Mighty Sodding Boosh?), which infamously turned a rendition of The Floral Dance that didn’t even feature his vocals into a chart hit. The Wogan version, and magisterial TOTP appearances, needless to say followed soon afterwards.
In fact, a top pop chart smash was just the start of it – by the turn of the decade, Wogan was such a phenomenon, helped in no small part by his ease of lampoonability for TV comics (notable repeat offenders including The Goodies, The Barron Knights and Kenny Everett, the latter of whom dispensed with the need for wigs and accents by just getting the real thing on to make absurdist fun of), that he was visible somewhere on television practically every hour of the day, not least in his own late night chat show. In 1984 that became a thrice-weekly early evening chat show, occasioning abandonment of radio duties. In fact, his contract with Radio 2 ended two days before the BBC1 one started, giving rise to an hilarious publicity photo of him grumpily wielding an oversized P45.
By 1992, his once-all-conquering Shepherd’s Bush-bemoanings were at a somewhat premature end (shunted from its slot to make way for Eldorado, no less), and after a year or so of wandering around somewhat loose-edged TV vehicles that didn’t really catch on, he was welcomed back to Breakfast by Radio 2 with open arms. This was Wogan 2.0 in more ways than one – the puns, the surrealist whimsy and the music-mockery were if anything more intense and unhinged than ever, with the host seemingly forever on the verge of losing control of the runaway oddness (not least when he started reading out old Janet And John stories), while the show now also attracted a not-particularly-small army of TOGs, a ferociously loyal band of ‘silver surfers’ who would obey his every command – and more often than not ones he hadn’t actually made – with an infectious sense of fun. All in all, Wake Up To Wogan was one of the more successful updated reinvention of a Cream Era staple for the modern age (and there were plenty that weren’t), drawing in a crowd of younger listeners and playing a huge part in Radio 2’s sadly probably soon-to-be-dismantled repositioning. His eventual retirement from Breakfast was a headline-dominating event, though within mere weeks he was back and hosting the distinctly chat show-esque Weekend Wogan…