“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.