The BBC have announced the death of the Welsh broadcaster, and arts and culture presenter, Nicola Heywood Thomas, who has passed away aged 67. Emma Schofield reflects on her lengthy contribution to broadcasting and the arts in Wales.
There are voices that you get so used to hearing on the radio that you no longer question who they are, or even pause, when their sound fills your car as you drive home, or joins you in your kitchen as you stand there trying to decide what to make for tea. Perhaps you acknowledge that voice in your own mind as you get on with whatever you’re doing; “ah, Nicola’s on” you might think to yourself as you chuck a jacket potato in the oven, or change lanes to avoid the queue building up at the approach to a roundabout. It’s casual, personal, in that way radio has to be because we willingly allow those voices to cut through the mundane of our everyday lives and join us for a while, even though, in reality, those same voices are complete strangers to most of us.
Nicola Heywood Thomas was one of those people. I never actually met her, but I’ve been familiar with her voice, drifting in and out of my world as I got on with my day, for so long that news of her death came with that jolt that you get when you realise that something significant has gone. I know I’m not alone; anyone interested in the arts in Wales will have become familiar with Nicola’s presence in discussion and debate around the place of culture in Wales. She wasn’t an artist or a writer herself, but her passion for making sure that discussion of culture in Wales was mainstream and available to everyone, positioned her firmly within that sphere. As host of the Radio Wales Arts Show she was the person who spoke to artists and performers from across Wales, encouraging them to share the stories behind their work and to position them within that all important bigger picture.
Of course, for many, memories of Nicola Heywood Thomas will date back to her lengthy career as a news anchor at HTV Wales. Having graduated and begun work as a news-researcher Nicola quickly became the main presenter of HTV’s Wales at Six programme, a role which saw her front the nightly news programme for over 15 years. In this time, she was the presenter at the helm for a number of landmark moments in Welsh broadcasting, including the coverage of the 1997 referendum on devolution and, later, the results show for the first ever election results for the new National Assembly. In all of these, there was a calmness and professionalism that allowed Nicola to navigate whatever unexpected territory a live news broadcast would bring.
She brought that same sense of ease and control as she transitioned to radio work for the BBC, overseeing phone-in debates and presenting widely on everything from news and current affairs, to music, literature and theatre. If it was news-worthy and relevant to our discussion about contemporary Wales, you could guarantee Nicola would be heard covering it before too long. An appearance on the Radio Wales Arts Show, which began broadcasting in 2011, was a milestone moment for anyone looking to break into the arts in Wales and find recognition for their work.
In a statement released last night, Carolyn Hitt, Editor of BBC Radio Wales, paid tribute to Nicola Heywood Thomas as “a hugely respected and admired” presenter, who had been a leading voice in the arts coverage in Wales for almost a quarter of a century. It’ll be strange not hearing that voice any longer, no longer being able to tune in to that familiarity and experience of the arts in Wales that Nicola was able to convey. There will be a void that needs filling, but also a legacy and a memory of a broadcaster who was able to bring much-needed warmth and conversation to the cultural debate surrounding the arts in Wales.