In late 1997, while studying at Aston University in Birmingham, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend the draw for the 1998 Eurovision Song Contest. Not quite the slick and sexy affair that the yearly allocation ceremony has now become, the event was instead held in a dowdy conference room at the National Indoor Arena, with Terry Wogan and Katrina Leskanich responsible for drawing the balls. Towards the start of the simultaneous broadcast on BBC Radio West Midlands (no webstreams in those days, but hey, better than nothing), event host and local DJ Malcolm Boyden noted that there were a few members of the ESC fan club in the audience, to which Wogan wryly replied: “oh, they don’t like me much!”
He wasn’t altogether wrong. At the time, the OGAE (UK) fan club magazine featured frequent complaints about Wogan’s flippant Eurovision commentary style, which ranged from talking over the songs and mispronouncing every other foreign name to reeling off endless factual inaccuracies as he went. He was a frustrating figurehead for an event that fans were desperate to see taken more seriously. Heck, one year we even held a competition to find the most errors in a Wogan commentary (I think the winning score was around 40).
But gentle piss-taking is very much the British (and Irish) way of doing things, and at no point was there any doubt that Terry Wogan loved the Eurovision Song Contest, even if he loved it in a different way to the entrenched hardcore fans of that pre-internet era. You don’t spend the years from 1971 to 2008 working on something you hate, after all, and you certainly don’t agree to go in front of camera and host the whole event like he did alongside Ulrika Jonsson when Birmingham welcomed the aforementioned 1998 contest.
Terry Wogan was a very funny man and a perfect match for the earnestly grand nature of the Eurovision Song Contest. His commentary style evolved from playfulness to outright mockery over the years, and while it’s true that he blotted his copybook somewhat by becoming overly bitter and twisted about the “Evil East” during his final years in the commentary booth, it always feels strange and a little bit wrong when you fire up a YouTube clip of an old contest and the voice accompanying proceedings belongs to anyone other than Terry Wogan.
Of course, there’s a strong argument that his attitude is one of the reasons why the United Kingdom does so poorly at the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s a vicious circle, really – if you treat the competition as a running joke, nobody decent is ever going to want to represent the UK, and if nobody decent ever represents the UK, the scoreboard won’t provide evidence that you should be treating the competition as anything other than a running joke. On the other hand, as German blogger Jan astutely points out in his piece at prinz.de, Wogan was an early advocate of the idea that the ESC should be seen as a fluffy light entertainment show rather than a serious music competition – precisely the approach that the European Broadcasting Union itself has openly adopted as the contest has mutated into a social media event and a party-oriented happening in recent years. So who’s to say he wasn’t right all along?
I’ll freely admit I was one of those angry fanboys in the 1990s, and I wasn’t overly sad when he finally put down his microphone and retired from the ESC commentary booth in 2008. But my own view of Wogan is happily tempered by fond memories of his non-Eurovision roles, whether as the host of ludicrous TV game show Blankety Blank or as a warm and witty radio presenter whose favourite song was also one of my own. (Our taste in music overlapped rather more outside the Eurovision bubble than within it.)
Similarly personal and individual tributes have been pouring in over the last 24 hours, and understandably so: he was that unique broadcaster who made you feel like he was talking to you directly, even when his audience was in the tens of millions.
But above all else, whether he was gently mocking the event or – on those rare occasions – letting his true affection for a song slip through the net, the ESC community is rightly taking a moment to recognise the distinguished career of a man who was quite simply the voice of the Eurovision Song Contest in the United Kingdom.