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Sir Terry Wogan - Doctor of Laws - One of the UK’s most popular radio and television presenters

Oration by Professor Gordon R Campbell

Sir Terry Wogan is a son of Limerick, a city for which he retains an unshakeable affection. He was educated at Crescent College, the successor to the first Jesuit school in Ireland. When Terry was 15, his family moved to Dublin, and Terry transferred to Belvedere College, another Jesuit institution. He did not emerge from this education with conspicuous piety, but Belvedere is a school that aspires to mould young men prepared to live ‘for others in leadership and example in the pursuit of a just world’. That is an aspiration that has left its mark on Terry Wogan’s character.

After leaving school Terry embarked on a career in banking. Had he persevered, bankers might have a public image as genial and generous fellows fully deserving of their vast bonuses. In the event, however, this proved to be a false start, and Terry soon became a broadcaster with Raidió Teilifís Éireann, the Irish equivalent of the BBC. He began with interviews and documentaries, but soon moved to Light Entertainment, notably to a gameshow called Jackpot. This ran till 1967, whereupon RTÉ decided to drop it. Terry had by this point developed bad habits such as eating every day, and he had a young wife, Helen (who is with us today), so he approached the BBC Light Programme, the precursor of Radio 2, to ask whether they had any work for him. In one of the BBC’s wisest decisions, they hired him, and soon Terry was working as a disc jockey on Midday Spin.

In 1967 the BBC reacted to the growing popularity of offshore pirate stations such as Radio Caroline by inaugurating Radio One, and Terry immediately migrated there as the DJ on the Tuesday evening edition of Late Night Extra. This toehold quickly led to the conquest of the mountain, because Terry established a two-hour afternoon show broadcast on both Radio One and Radio Two. He created an unprecedented following of some six million listeners, and became a national figure. In 1972 he took over a morning show and called it Wake Up with Wogan. Here Terry raised listening figures to more than seven million, but he declined to think of his audience in terms of figures, preferring instead to think of them as friends. He called them TOGs (Terry's Old Geezers, or Gals), and this is characteristic of the warmth that made Terry Wogan the European broadcaster with the highest number of listeners. His morning radio programme ended for the first time when Terry moved full-time into television, but he returned in 1993 and it ended for a second time on 18 December 2009, which felt like a national day of mourning. Terry, however, declined to mourn, assuring his ‘friends’ (by which he meant his listeners) that he would not miss the early mornings, when crocodiles still roam the streets. Once again the demise of Wogan on the airwaves was announced prematurely, and on Valentine’s Day this year there was a second resurrection, this time in the form of Weekend Wogan, and that lives on, for which millions are grateful.

In his early years on television Terry Wogan chatted contentedly for seven years on a show simply called Wogan, for eight years on Points of View and then for two series of Wogan: Now and Then. His biggest impact, however, has been on three programmes that he presented (or presents) annually. Each of them reveals something about Sir Terry’s character. BBC Proms in the Park testifies to his enduring love of music of virtually any type. The Eurovision Song Contest, which he presented for 35 years, was on one level a showpiece for Terry’s integrity. He could be sharply critical of dreadful singing and costumes, and of voting determined by regional loyalties rather than musical merits, but his generosity was bottomless, and when his role finally came to an end he described the show as ‘the world's greatest international television event. ... exciting, camp, foolish, spectacular, fun .... the most brilliantly produced three and a half hours of live television ever seen’. The third programme is BBC Children In Need. The idea of a BBC appeal had a history stretching back to 1927, when it took the form of a five-minute broadcast; indeed, Terry took part in this five-minute version in 1978 and 1979. Thereafter it was Terry Wogan who lifted this event into the mainstream and through the years raised half a billion pounds for this charity.

Alongside this career in broadcasting, Terry Wogan is a writer. He is modest about his books, but that is because he is a modest man, not because his books fall short of the mark. Indeed, the delight of the books derives from his ability to transfer his voice and characteristic idiom to the printed page. The books, like the man, are self-effacing and witty, and they are descriptions of the world from which Terry came and the very different one that he now inhabits. The one to take to your desert island is the autobiographical Mustn't Grumble, which contains some extraordinary sketches of figures in his childhood as well as an account of his broadcasting career. What lifts this book above conventional autobiography is an imaginative sympathy for characters who are not likeable; Sir Terry’s impulse is to understand rather than to condemn, and that says something about his character as well as his skill as a writer.

Terry Wogan has rightly been honoured for this life lived to create happiness in others. These honours include the Freedom of Limerick and London, an Honorary OBE, an Honorary Knighthood, a Knighthood in Ordinary and a Blue Peter Gold Badge, which is the Blue Peter equivalent of the Order of Merit. In a moment he will be honoured by this University, and you may wonder why it is the University of Leicester is conferring this honour and why Sir Terry is according us the honour of accepting it. The answer lies in a running joke on Radio 2, when Terry Wogan referred to Leicester as a lost city, one that was mentioned in traffic reports because of maintenance work on the motorway, but was otherwise unknown. And just as Schliemann announced in 1868 that he had discovered the lost city of Troy, so Terry Wogan announced the discovery of Leicester in November 1984. Since then he has discovered that the City has a world-class university that he tells his listeners is ‘the best university in the universe’, and he has on several occasions used the facilities of the University to host the three-day Mardi Gras that is the TOGs convention. His immense capacity for friendship now extends to this University, and we heartily reciprocate.

Mr Chancellor, on the authority of the Senate and of the Council, I present to you Michael Terence Wogan, that you may confer upon him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws.

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