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Terry Wogan and the celebrity system

ehdv7a“We’ll never see their like again” is a refrain common to the passing of major league celebrities. With David Bowie this was because of his profound influence on pop music and performance, an impact that is probably impossible for anyone to repeat ever. And then there is Terry Wogan who, I would suggest, is of a similar type of celebrity.

What? As beloved Terry Wogan is, how can he as a Radio 2 presenter, former talk show host, and longtime commentator on Europe’s silly song contest be considered to have much in common with our culture-defining legend? Yes, and it comes down to the political economy of celebrity.

Anyone with a passing similarity with the sidebar of shame knows there’s a gradation in the level of celebrity. At the very top are the A-listers of hot pop and film stars, and genuine legends who have distinguished themselves in their chosen fields. Their stardom is usually international in scope – to have made it big in America is more or less a prerequisite.

The next level down are national celebrities of import. These can be actors, warblers, presenters, comedians, etc. In this way of grading matters, here is where you’d probably locate Wogan’s celebrity. The next rung down are your soap stars, DJs, and various species of presenter and talk show host.

And then at the bottom are your Z-list’ers of reality TV stars (amateur and “professional”), talent show contest hopefuls, paparazzi fodder, glamour models, and so on. This is hardly scientific, of course, but if you can think about celebrity as a broad field in which people jostle for media attention and exposure, you could certainly make a plausible stab of segmenting it in this way.

Approaching celebrity as a field has its advantages, but an emphasis on mapping out contemporary positions might ignore the specific routes taken to fame by those at the top of the tree, and miss how celebrity once worked differs from its operation today. And this is where the substantive similarities between Wogan on the one hand, and Bowie on the other start to show up.

One does not have to be a paid up aficionado of postmodern social theory to accept that what it did get right was the tendency to cultural splintering and fragmentation that started in the 1960s, and accelerated in the 80s and 90s. The consequences of which are much disputed and need not detain us here (though more here). Yet over the same period there was a strong counter-tendency to homogenisation and uniformity. This didn’t express itself 1984-style, but rather the mass media as was had a narrower range while commanding audiences unheard of these days.

When Wogan presented Wogan, at one point 20 million people were regularly rocking up to watch. This wasn’t because the past was a foreign country (though it is), it simply reflected a lack of choice. At the time ofWogan‘s peak we had four terrestrial channels and a small offering on satellite. Go back even further, and TV viewers had fewer options. This meant, culturally speaking, that millions of people had common viewing habits to such an extent that these shared media reference points worked as social glue. It was then, and to a degree remains now, a common currency.

Celebrity-wise, it meant stars who made it under these conditions became a huge deal. There were a plethora of bands and singers when the rocket blew up under Bowie’s career, but vast audiences on radio and TV for his work throughout the 70s conferred legendary status upon him. Consistent exposure, which was matched by only a few of his contemporaries, embedded him as an A-list fixture of the star system. And Wogan was exactly the same. A regular on BBC radio since the 60s, and a familiar television face from the 70s, Wogan attained the status of feted national treasure by ubiquity and familiarity. Whereas Bowie’s fame (initially) courted notoriety, Wogan’s was a gentle, if wry conformity. He wasn’t someone you’d meet down the pub or in the queue at the checkout, but his was a presence, and therefore a passing, felt just as keenly by millions of people.

Terry Wogan was a survivor of the old celebrity system as it worked here in Britain. We won’t see his like again not simply because he was a one-off. There are plenty of quick-witted Irish men who’ve made a home at the BBC, after all. No, the way it works now, that fragmentation I talked about, materially rules out the re-emergence of someone who would grow into Wogan’s standing. There will always be loved and fondly remembered celebrities for as long as there are celebrities, but to have that reach and deeply held connection between a person and the thoughts and feelings of tens of millions? That time has passed.


  1. Jim Denham says:

    And your point is ..?

  2. Mick Hall says:


    The point is, although Phil fails to mention it, celebrities like Wogan and Bowie gained enormous publicity and star status in their field because they threatened no moneyed or political interests.

    The only difference is Wogan was at the top of his game for five decades and Bowie zig zaged up and down. Still at least the latter turned down one of Betsy’s silly gongs unlike the plastic Paddy

  3. Dave Roberts says:

    I gave up on this after ” post modern social theory”. Enough said. There are much more important topics that you could be writing about Phil. How about starting with the lies told by every politician about build more affordable social housing, is there any being built at all at the moment?

    Several decades of encouraging young people leaving school to go into ” media studies” or anything clicking a keyboard have left us with a drastic shortage of every building skill. Even if the land could be found the bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers and plasterers don’t exist in sufficient numbers and Eastern Europe has been stripped bare of all trades people.

    Ads for labourers now stipulate that communicable English must be spoken. What happened to our technical colleges? I think they all became colleges of technology teaching the dreaded ” media studies”.

  4. David Ellis says:

    The celebrity thing took off with the mid-80s deregulation of the finance sector which gave us a thirty-year credit bubble turned Ponzi Scam that drove a consumer boom of monumental proportions until the banks collapsed in 2008 having accumulated debts several times those of the nations in which they were hosted which had taken centuries to accumulated. Celebrities were the salesmen of this frenzy.

  5. David Pavett says:

    Like others I fail to see what this article is doing on Left Futures.

    Celebrity culture is an important social phenomenon which has an impact on politics in general and on Labour politics in particular. That would be worth discussing, for example in connection with Corbyn’s argument against the allegation of male domination of so-called “top-jobs” in the Shadow Cabinet. But that isn’t what we get in this piece by Phil BC.

    Terry Wogan and David Bowie may be worth discussing in debate about the emergence of icons in our highly controlled media but when the Labour Party is pressed with a series of very urgent political issues on which new policies need to be developed I suggest that this sort of article should be confined to websites/blogs concerned with a broad range of sociological issues (like the one run by Phil BC) only some of which have any real political traction.

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