Earlier this month, Lynn Bowles announced live on Ken Bruce’s Radio 2 show that, after 18 years, she’s leaving her role as traffic reporter. Her last day is Maundy Thursday, 29 March.
“People have been saying ‘Mourning Thursday’, so now I’m feeling like a bad person,” she says.
Bowles is a favourite with the Radio 2 audience. Listeners’ tributes have been flooding in on Twitter: “My mornings will never be the same again.” “Gutted.” “Great loss to the Beeb.” “What a crap week for the BBC. Lost Lynn Bowles and Robot Wars.”
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So what prompted this sudden exit? “Lots of things,” she says, when we meet in Ken Bruce’s studio. “Having done very early mornings for so long, I’m just a bit tired. And I’m fully aware that lots of people do really early mornings… I get that because I’m there on air with them. But one does not have an infinite life. I want to do other things. And as lovely as it is to work here, I also work at BBC Radio Wales on a Sunday. It was just getting a bit much, to be honest.”
This is understandable. A preposterously cheery and dynamic character, Bowles, 55, gets up at 4am and has presented half-hourly travel bulletins from 6.30am to 12 noon five days a week since the turn of the century. Four years ago, she was given her own show on BBC Wales on Sundays, which meant adding an eight-hour round trip on the M4 into her schedule.
On top of all that she has to do endless, on-air banter with Ken Bruce and Chris Evans. Just thinking about it is exhausting.
Something else influenced her decision. “I’ve had things happen to a lot of friends recently. And friends of friends. Mostly men in their 40s and 50s who were perfectly fine and then suddenly: brain tumours, cancer, strokes. I got a call from a friend about a man I used to work with. He was a lawyer in his 40s who had a stroke. It was an epiphany.”
She realised that life is too short. “Anyone who does my kind of hours knows what it’s like. People say, ‘But you’ve got your afternoons free!’ Yes. But I’m in bed by 8pm.”
Dubbed the “Totty from Splotty” by Terry Wogan (Splott is in Cardiff, near where she was born), Bowles was brought on to the Ken Bruce Show to read the traffic news in 2000, having previously presented on Jazz FM, LBC and BBC Radio 5 Live.
Initially she wrote all the bulletins for the pre-Ken-Bruce programming, too, before they decided she might as well come on air and read them out herself.
I bristle at the idea of a woman being called “totty” but things were different then, she argues. “It was just how we were on that show,” she says of Wogan. “It was entirely innocent. I took it in good part because I was very young in comparison to the fellows on there. It was dearly meant and they treated me like a younger sister. Nowadays, you’re right, it would have a different connotation. But then it was just silliness.”
The job that really got her noticed as a broadcaster was opposite Richard Littlejohn. “It’s all his fault,” she says. “He would say things to me on air and I wasn’t flummoxed by anything. I would answer back. A BBC producer heard that and wanted me to talk like that with John Inverdale. I’ve got a smart mouth.”
It's with a heavy heart that today we announced, after 18 fantastic years, @realLynnBowles is leaving Radio 2 later this month. ????@realkenbruce has been with her from the beginning… pic.twitter.com/aIPvF0gF5Q
— BBC Radio 2 (@BBCRadio2) March 16, 2018
But isn’t the most difficult thing about traffic reporting keeping a straight face? She switches into intensely serious mode. “It’s as important as the news. Horrible things happen to people. When I started, ten people a day were dying on the roads. You think about their families. We’re now down to killing five people a day. It concentrates your mind. And at the BBC we do it properly. It’s important and I think we need to do it right.”
She shudders to remember one particular phone call from a listener. “It was early on a really foggy morning. And the M40 is known for the fog. He came through and said, ‘Lynn, I’m on the M40, southbound…’ And I could hear the cars banging into each other. I almost ran into the studio saying, ‘I need to tell people to slow down on the M40…’ It was terrifying.”
Bowles writes all her own scripts, using a traffic information subscription service combined with the latest information from listeners. When she started out, she would phone police stations herself to ask what was happening on the A40.
Does she have a favourite motorway? “Oh, I love them all,” she smiles. “They’re all my children.” Somehow I don’t think she will miss the traffic updates. She has someone else to read them out on her BBC Wales show. She grew up just outside Cardiff and is intending to make her second home there her main base.
“I’m moving the centre of gravity from south London back to Wales.” She is thinking of getting some sheep and chickens. What will happen at Radio 2 when she leaves? No one seems to know. With satnav and digital advances, Bowles wonders about the future for traffic reporting.
How will the BBC replace her? “I’m utterly irreplaceable,” she laughs. “They’ll have to have a good think about that!”