Sunday, 15 January 2012

Waking Up to Wogan's Charms (and Geldof's & O'Leary's)

Hearing Terry Wogan on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs last week reminded me that he’s actually a rather nice man, but I had always loathed him…until I ended up sitting beside him at dinner. I hasten to add that it wasn’t the two of us on a romantic evening out. There were loads of other people there, including Arsenal/Leeds footballer David O’Leary and a saint--Bob Geldof, whose outfit made headlines the next day as Lady Gaga's or Kate Middleton's might now. I was grateful for the presence of O'Leary and Geldof when I saw the seating plan, as I couldn’t imagine how I would cope spending a long evening beside that awful man Terry Wogan.

But why did I loathe him? What had he done to cross me? Don’t suppose I was applying reason to my feelings. Surely you can think of someone whom you "just hate" even though you don’t know them. A celebrity whose presence on this earth irks you. It's wholly irrational, you don't know this person and they're unlikely to have done you harm, but you can't abide them.

For instance, I absolutely cannot watch a film with Jim Carrey in it, someone I see as an over the top, tremendously irritating fool who is as funny as drowning puppies. Maybe he’s a poor example of the Wogan Syndrome, as I don’t believe my dislike for Carrey is irrational; it’s natural. Similarly, I cannot watch a film with Keira Knightley in it; I end up screaming at the screen the whole time. I did just manage to avoid screaming at the stage when I ventured to the West End to see her in The Misanthrope because I love Damian Lewis, Tara FitzGerald and Molière, having 'starred' in several (French) Moliere productions as a youngster. But the play was awful and wasn't Moliere but a dated Martin Crimp update, and I absolutely couldn’t bear Knightley. I remain baffled at what the world sees in her, but surely my feelings are sound.

Well, for many years I had a similar strong dislike of someone else: Terry Wogan. But I can now humbly admit that I was wrong in that case. At the time, I don't believe there was quite such a "national treasure" warmth towards the ‘Togmeister’. He’d had a television chat show three nights a week, and I’d found him unbearably irksome. The guests on his programme were never given a chance to speak, as Wogan made sure that every interview was all about Wogan, with him trying to look cute, him trying to be funny, him turning the conversation back to how great he was, always with a twinkling wink of the eye. His questions grew longer and longer, and when he finally paused to give the guest the illusion they might have a chance to answer, he’d leap in again with his own answer about him. Yet the show ran for ages so presumably no one (other than Melanie Griffith?) found him quite as annoying as I did. And after his show was replaced with the failed soap El Dorado, I expect everyone began to miss it and remember it with more fondness than it deserved.

At this time in the mid-90s, I had just been introduced to the Eurovision Song Contest, which, to an American, was an amazing novelty and rather fun in a cringeworthy way. Still, any silly enjoyment of the programme for the sake of laughs was ruined because Terry Wogan spoke throughout. He seemed to take it too seriously and criticised every bit of it, talking over the music, over the hosts, over everything, sounding bitter and twisted and plainly rude, but never funny or entertaining.

Add to that the fact that his younger son Mark was at the time coming across badly in his television appearances as he tried to become a celebrity chef, and I blamed Wogan Sr for that, too. It’s like that old expression: Too many Wogans cause woe.

So it was with horror that I took my seat at a formal banquet one evening and found that the person to my left was Terry Wogan. I was fairly shy anyway and now was going to have to make conversation for at least half of the evening with this man I couldn't abide. How would I manage?

Quite well, as it turned out, because the man beside me bore no relation to the demon I’d built up in my mind. He was charming, calmly quiet, down-to-earth and totally pleasant. In chatting, I found even he didn’t take the Eurovision Song Contest seriously (and I believe he suggested the UK couldn’t win because of the ridiculous way certain countries voted for each other regardless of the songs’ merit--which is much worse now). He was also a bit sheepish about his son's efforts to pursue television chef celebrity at the time (at which I believe young Wogan later succeeded)—very supportive as a father, but certainly not proclaiming him to be the next Delia Smith. Wogan seemed to be on my side about most things. It was as though I'd drawn my pistol for a duel, taken ten paces and turned to find my opponent effusively agreeing with my point of view and offering to shoot my rival for me.

One wonderfully memorable thing was how highly he thought of his wife, and he credited her for a great deal throughout the conversation—not just because she might have been in ear shot, as she was engaged in conversation. When he later brought her into our chat, she was a delightful, gregarious soul, and they seemed to have a warm, loving and respectful relationship. He was clearly terribly proud of her. They’d been married since before I was born, for about 31 years at the time of the dinner

If I had had no preconceptions and never heard of Terry Wogan, I would have considered him to be a marvellous dinner companion. All smiles, surprisingly quiet in his manner yet easy to talk to, and clearly full of love for life and his family, without taking a single thing for granted. Even with my preconceptions, this delightful, gentle manner zapped them away in minutes. He seemed a genuinely decent soul.

Don’t think that my change of opinion was down to being star struck. I've come across far greater VIPs than him in my life, and I’d had too low an opinion of him at the time anyway to be so moved. In any case, I wasn't short of celebrity conversation that evening. (Bearing in mind "celebrity" at the time referred to people who had actually accomplished something.) Seated to my left was Terry Wogan, yes, but across the table from me was Bob Geldof, with footballer David O’Leary diagonally across from me. It was, as you may have guessed, a dinner full of Irish guests (and at least one American in me). I believe the banquet was welcoming the President of Ireland to London.

Ten or 15 years earlier, I would have been thrilled to sit by Bob Geldof, as I had been a big fan of the Boomtown Rats in their early days, and of course thought the Band Aid and Live Aid projects were remarkable. But at this time, he was a breakfast telly tramp--the proprietor of the wild and enormously successful Big Breakfast venture, the highest rated UK show in its morning timeslot, attracting two million viewers to Channel 4. He had the reputation then of neither sleeping nor washing for days, so I pictured having to sit at a banquet by a smelly grumbling vagabond.

But Geldof surprised everyone by turning up in the required dress--white tie and covered in decorations including his KBE--looking so dapper that he featured on the front page of several tabloids the next day, all remarking on how unlikely it seemed that dirty Bob Geldof would scrub up so nicely and be so establishment. But he told me that evening how crucial he felt it was to wear the correct dress to occasions, and that he refused people entry to his wedding to Paula Yates if they hadn’t observed the dress code (presumably he was okay with the bride’s blood red dress). I was reminded then that, although he gave off the airs of being a dirty hippie-type, he was in fact a public school boy.

About that time, my then husband extricated himself from the person with whom he was in deep conversation most of the night long enough to turn to us to embarrass me by saying to Geldof, with whom I’d been coolly having a civil conversation, that I was one of his biggest fans. I don’t think that even in the 80s and certainly not by the mid-90s this was remotely true, but even if it were, that would not be my strategy for conversation with fellow guests at a state banquet. I was horrified and, to make matters worse, when Geldof looked expectantly to me for perhaps some gushing or at least favourable comment, my mortification wiped my mind completely blank of everything he’d ever done. Not even Band Aid came to mind. Eventually, I managed to mutter "Yes, I loved Surfacing", forgetting the full name of the album or even whether it was of solo or Rats pedigree (it was the Boomtown Rats’ 1979 album containing their huge hit I Don’t Like Mondays, which was not my favourite of their songs). Fortunately, that little utterance was enough. “That was a great album,” Geldof said, nodding thoughtfully, so my grasped straw was a useful one. Artists should like their own albums—otherwise, there’s little point in producing them, and the songs are probably like their children, after all.

Happily, that was the only stint of humiliation that my then husband chose to serve on me at that particular dinner before he effectively disappeared again, and I was able to move away from my past love of Geldof’s music and my past hatred for Wogan’s work, and talk to them about anything else. We--Terry Wogan, Bob Geldof, David O’Leary and I—even talked about the Troubles, and I was fascinated at the time to hear them all be critical of the IRA--and no doubt terrorism in general. As someone who had been raised in America, where they pretty much teach us that all of Ireland, even the Republic, is being held hostage against its will by evil British soldiers, I told them I was amazed to hear those views as I naively (or brainwashedly) had thought anyone Irish would support the IRA, and they all put me straight. They clearly were not supportive of any violence against innocent people, and that discussion sparked my interest in the Troubles, about which I now have many books with a variety of viewpoints, some of which I picked up on visits to beautiful Belfast, which is now one of my favourite places.

Throughout that evening, I chatted to those three men, much to the envy of my husband, who was a massive Arsenal fan but too far away from O’Leary to speak to him at length. After several years of marriage, the hub’s often twisted passion for football, including days of depression if Arsenal had merely drawn rather than beaten another team, had completely driven from me any love for ‘soccer’ that I had growing up, having played it as a child and watched my father in goal every weekend. So I knew little of O’Leary but found him to be a totally kind and genuine gentleman whose pleasant company I enjoyed. This was back when he was a nice young man who had never been sent off whilst playing for Arsenal, nothing more. I recall him telling me some romantic story of how he met his wife, which I picture as involving someone helping another who fell off a horse, but I could be imagining it through Jane Austen-coloured glasses.

My civilised chats with the three Irishmen were only altered as more courses were served with wonderful wines flowing, which led Geldof to slip sloshedly into a different persona. From the interesting polite Catholic schoolboy, he changed to someone who may well have inspired Father Jack, adding his favourite adjective (not quite “feckin”) to every word. His marriage to Paula Yates had ended not long before, and he was with a French blonde called Jeanne Marine (whom he is impressively still with 15 years later), and as the night went on, they became quite friendly in a manner for which the expression “get a room” was invented. Which would have been a more appropriate option then practically pinning each other down on the long table of a state banquet lined with gold candelabras, lavish food and important guests (and me). That image was no doubt a first for such a stuffy occasion, but it’s nice that they admired each other and knew how to express it. I gathered that she only spoke French, so he had to speak in tongues....

Dear David O’Leary rang my husband the next day to invite us to dinner and also to apologise for the language that I had had to tolerate. How chivalrous, when he didn’t mean his own. (The later dinner with the O’Learys, by the way, never happened, as I believe he was transferred to Leeds right after that. My husband and I seemed to have bad luck then, as we had another invitation to lunch at the House of Lords with a neighbour, who shortly before our chosen date ended up tragically dying whilst speaking in the House of Lords. So let that be a lesson to you. Don’t invite me to dinner. Though I imagine this taint of bad luck was down to my ex-husband, not me. Just after we separated, I won a desperately needed £70 on the lottery whereas he fell down a nine-foot hole whilst playing laser tag and had to walk with a cane for months.)

So, that’s how I came to know that Sir Terry Wogan (he’s entitled to be addressed as "Sir Terry" because he changed to UK citizenship, unlike “Sir” Bob) is actually a lovely person--as was David O’Leary…and Bob Geldof was rather elegant and introspective when sober. It was the first of several incidents that taught me how stupid it was just to adopt unjustifiable hatred for someone you really don’t know. So kids, let that be a lesson to you--such unqualified dislike of strangers is wrong. Unless it's about Keira Knightley, who really is awful and impossible to watch. But other than that, I’ve learned my lesson.

Incidentally, I remembered that a photograph had been taken of us at the table, but I’ve blurred my face as I do like to remain anonymous and hate having my photograph on the internet. I initially covered it with a black blob but that started to scare me like an ominous ‘Paul-is-dead’ type of symbol, so I’ve adjusted it to a rather less threatening blur. The aged paper photo had such a freakish red tint on it, I had to lighten it slightly, which made Bob and Jeanne look like cartoon characters. But doesn’t Bob look smart?! Front page news, that was.

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