Broadcaster from Hell

What would make an otherwise sane farmer's widow from Devon pack up her bags, withdraw pounds 7,500 from her bank account and travel all the way to Hell? Terry Wogan, of course. Sue Gaisford joins Terry's Old Gals as they keep him company in the middle of nowhere
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The Independent Online
Annie Lewis had been having problems with obscene phone calls. One day, a few months ago, a new, sinister message was left on her answering machine. So threatening did it seem that a friend hadn't wanted her to hear it, but Annie is brave, and listened anyway. Without preamble, a voice informed her that she was definitely going to Hell; the date had been fixed and she could not avoid it. Happily, she recognised it as being not to a malevolent maniac but to her Aunt Julie: the message was not at all frightening; rather, a cause for celebration. Julie had done it again.

Julie Lewis is becoming Terry Wogan's mascot. Two years ago during the Children in Need appeal she bid pounds 7,000 for the privilege of travelling to Oslo with him, to fell the Christmas tree for Trafalgar Square. She had such fun that when Braathens, the Norwegian national airline, offered another prize last autumn she found herself bidding again. This time, the temptation was a weekend for two, again in the company of Terry Wogan, in a small town near Trondheim called Hell. It cost her another pounds 7,500.

The woman is not a mad millionairess. She is a small, pretty widow in her sixties, a farmer from Chudleigh in Devon. She is neither immensely rich, nor deranged. She is in fact extremely nice, sensible and rather shy. The Children in Need appeal struck her as a good cause, but she brushes aside suggestions that she gave the money as a gesture of pure philanthropy. She reckons she got a bargain.

So there we were on Friday, standing in our wellies in the waiting-room at Hell station. We'd come in across the snowy goods-yard, where a sign reads "Hell-Gods Expedition". Outside, a wintry sun glanced off distant mountains, burnished the pewter of the fjord, shivered through silver birches. Inside, dressed all in black, sporting shades and trilbies, stone- cold sober in the glare of morning, the Hell Blues Band gave a magnificent, if wildly incongruous, performance of "Pick A Bale Of Cotton", while the Lewises, the Wogans and a small band of bemused voyeurs struggled manfully to suppress our hysteria at the whole gently absurd endeavour.

The lure, of course. was Wogan. You wouldn't exactly say Julie is in love with him but, in his company, she radiates delight; she's flirtatious, indulgent, happy. If you ask her how it all began, she tells you it's her husband's fault. Years ago, back in the Seventies, they had a dairy herd. One day he came in from milking and told her he'd been listening to an amusing chap on the radio. She tuned in and was gradually hooked. When Wogan left the radio to appear three times a week on television, she did go slightly off him, but he's been back on the Radio 2 breakfast show for three years now, and she's right back on him again.

After her husband's death, Julie used, idly, to consider writing to him, but thought it might be silly. Then he introduced a competition, with kettles offered for the best 200 letters. Ah, she thought, here's a challenge. She wrote, saying that when she first heard him she'd been an intelligent young woman with a lively interest in 16th-century lute music; he had turned her into a grey-haired old TOG (which, as cognoscenti will be aware, means one of Terry's Old Geezers or, as in her case, Gals). She won her kettle, and a lasting (ultimately very expensive) bond was formed.

That's how he works - by inducing addiction, On television he had huge viewing figures, but, constrained by the medium, his talent for inspired improvisation wilted: he acquired few correspondents and several enemies. Now he's back where he belongs, there's no limit to what he can get away with. He can pick up an idea and run amok with it, and, boy, do his listeners join in. We'd had a chance to watch him in action that morning. He'd mentioned noticing a bird from the hotel room: was it a peewit, a lapwing or a Norwegian linnet? Or maybe an aardvark? Within minutes, the BBC in London was receiving calls confidently identifying this creature that only Terry had seen. Anoraks and twitchers all, they clamoured to be heard. The show from Hell had, someone mentioned during a trail, been coming from the Rica Hell Hotel. Just that information was enough for the TOGs. Helen Wogan had been woken at dawn by phone calls with requests.

That's really not surprising. Wake Up to Wogan receives up to about 450 letters, faxes and e-mails a day. A staggering 5 million people tune in during an average week, easily the largest audience on Radio 2, and Wogan has been strongly tipped to win a Sony award later in the year. Paul Walters, his old friend and producer, whose onerous duty it is to read all this stuff, carries a permanent, fluttering sheaf of it around with him. He showed me a letter. Written on suspiciously bright yellow paper, it came from someone wanting the current prize (successor to the kettles, toasters and alarm clocks that went before). "An XL sweatshirt in the not-too-bold BBC grey" was requested, so that the writer could tuck it into the waistband of his perma-pressed polyester trousers and do away with his green and yellow snake-loop boy-scout belt. So far, so classically TOG. But, luckily, Walters realised just in time that the author's name was not for broadcasting. It was Paul Impdick.

They're always trying to catch him out with silly names. There is Gloria Spottem, for instance, Betty Swallocks and Norma Schnockers (Walters is wary now about anyone called Gloria, Norma or Hugh). But some of the genuine fans are even more disturbing. Twelve real people write to him regularly, every single day. Haven't these people got lives?

If Julie Lewis is anything to go by, they probably have. But they see him as a friend. Julie listens to him for company, to cheer her up if she has a hard day ahead, to keep her happy. And he is phenomenally cheerful. He'd arrived in Norway very late the previous night but there he was, on top form at the microphone, remarking that Hell was bound to be full of furious scorned women, that it was not the place it was cracked down to be, that at last he had reached the destination assigned to him by the Christian Brothers at school - and demanding coffee with menaces when the music was playing.

And what you hear is what you get. Throughout a day lasting from 7.30am until after midnight, entertained royally by the friendly, serious people of Trondheim, he retained the relaxed and genial manner of his broadcasting personality. You couldn't catch him out, and before long you really didn't want to. He works hard for more charities than he's prepared to mention and he's more thoughtful, better read and much cleverer than you might guess - "though I'd hate anyone to confuse me with an intellectual". He is quickly bored, easily embarrassed, very easily amused. He hates the current trend for "sixth-form sneering" and would never consciously hurt anybody just to get a laugh. His, he says, is a small talent: he knows he's good at his job and he's been lucky all his life.

Julie Lewis is wondering whether the BBC might like to set up another trip, on the buy-two-get-one-free principle. Annie, her niece, should be feeling slightly nervous. A glamorous and successful TV producer, she had come along just to keep an eye on Aunt Julie. She had no opinion, much, of Terry Wogan before she met him on Friday. She'd better watch out. It was plain to anyone who knows what to look for that it won't be long before she starts turning into a TOGn