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

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

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Lois Pryce... Life Without a Postcode. Lois lives on a boat with her husband.. Registering to vote in the election has prooved to be very difficult without a fixed residential post code. (David Sandison)
newsHow living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Steven Fletcher scores the second goal for Scotland
cricketBut they have to bounce back to beat Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifier
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Web Developer - ASP.NET, C#, MVC - London

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Web Developer -...

Ashdown Group: .NET Developer : ASP.NET , C# , MVC , web development

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits - see advert: Ashdown Group: .N...

Guru Careers: 3D Package Designer / 3D Designer

£25 - 30K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an exceptional 3D Package Designer / 3...

Guru Careers: Interior Designer

£Competitive: Guru Careers: We are seeking a strong Middleweight / Senior Inte...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing