A National Treasure: 30 Years of Antiques Roadshow

Porcelain, paintings and pewter goblets may not be the most obvious ingredients for a hit TV series. But this weekend,'Antiques Roadshow' will celebrate 30 years of quintessentially British broadcasting. Ed Caesar salutes a priceless institution
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The Independent Online

Well, it's large. Thirty years old, and still looks as good as new. Of course, when they first starting making this model, no one had seen anything like it. Now, they're ten a penny.

Still, let's see. Been all around the country, and only marginal signs of wear and tear. That's good. Interesting cast of characters in the main display, which could attract a casual viewer. I don't suppose you still have the original box you first saw it on? No, well, never mind. Of course, you'd never sell something like this, would you, but if you wanted to value it – just for insurance purposes, naturally – I'd have to say...

How do you put a value on Antiques Roadshow? Now entering its 30th series, the BBC's Sunday evening staple still draws as many as six million viewers. For its entire life, the programme has rated in the top 10 factual shows on British terrestrial television. It has provided 30 years of what Jane Root – who, until 2004, controlled what had been Antiques Roadshow's home channel, BBC2 – called that "warm bath" feeling. It has been exported to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South America, USA, Canada and East Africa, and throughout Europe. And, in a year of TV "faking" scandals, it has not caused its paymasters a moment's anxiety. This is a show whose raison d'être is to sort the authentic from the forged, the Rubens from the rubbish.

Antiques Roadshow's appeal has little to do with antiques. Its millions of viewers might feign a passing interest in the pot or painting or Edwardian toy under the expert's magnifying glass, but that's not why they're watching. They're watching because Antiques Roadshow is about other people, and more importantly, other people's stuff. It's about the drama of one man's trash becoming another man's treasure. It's about our greed, our surprise, our credulity, our nosiness, our carelessness, and our past. It's the ultimate reality television: a controlled, consuming experiment, conducted in the most polite language, to which we are all invited.

Antiques Roadshow, like many good ideas (the internet, diagonal parking, bouillabaisse) didn't look good on paper. And, like many good ideas, it almost didn't happen. In 1977, Robin Drake, a producer with BBC Bristol, visited a regional event organised by one of the big London auction houses. Its aim was to find a few treasures out of the attics of ordinary people, which could then be sold at auction in London and make everybody involved a little richer. This struck Drake as a good idea for a television programme.

He knew, too, that another BBC Bristol programme – Badgerwatch – had enjoyed success as one of the first nature programmes to position outside broadcast cameras (OBs) next to an area of animal interest and let nature take its course. So, what would happen if cameras were trained on an antiques roadshow, and the biped life were observed there?

BBC Bristol took a good deal

of convincing. At the time, despite the relative success of shows such as Going for a Song – where a panel of the semi-famous and the semi-deceased discussed, very slowly, the relative merits of historic items – antiques were still considered an elitist pursuit. A programme that relied on the general public to bring their own dusty treats to a BBC outside broadcast struck the mandarins as risky.

Still, Drake was a persuasive man, and, with Badgerwatch's presenter Bruce Parker and Going for a Song's antiques expert Arthur Negus co-presenting, a pilot was arranged, in Hereford, on 17 May 1977.

"A few posters had gone up around the town," Parker recalls. " And I think the local paper had run an advert or two. But we didn't know how many people were going to turn up when we filmed that pilot. I thought we had a good idea for a programme, but we needed the public to respond. We shouldn't have worried – they turned up in their hundreds. People warmed to it and understood the show immediately. We had a ball."

That pilot, and the ensuing episodes of what would become Antiques Roadshow's first series, aired in 1979, and a tea-time ritual had been born. Indeed, so appealing did the programme prove that the format first employed on the first day in Hereford has endured, almost unchanged, to this day. After 509 programmes at 425 venues, the formula remains simple: the experts set up shop; the punters turn up with supermarket bags full of tat; the cameras roll.

That Antiques Roadshow has survived into the multichannel, internet-challenged television era is testament to its most basic appeal – like watching county cricket in the 1980s – that while the majority of its content might be of low to middling interest, something extraordinary could be just around the corner. These highlights are what Hugh Scully, Parker's successor and a 19-year Roadshow veteran, calls "the gobsmacking moments ".

"People do like to believe that they have something of value, and they often come in with great expectations," says Scully, who retired in 2000. "It does happen sometimes, but it doesn't happen that often.

"The one that stands out for me is a picture we found in Barnstable in north Devon in 1987. We had had a disappointing day, until, at 2pm, a couple came in with a painting. The irony is that they wouldn't have come in at all had it not been for their dog, whose favourite walk was through the park that our hall backed on to. So, anyway, they took

the dog for a walk, and while they were out, they thought they might as well take this painting, which they didn't particularly like, into the Roadshow.

"Our expert, Peter Nahum, couldn't believe what he had seen. He knew of the existence of the painting – The Halt in the Desert, by Richard Dadd – and he knew it had been missing for 100 years or more. This couple in Barnstable had no idea what they had. They also had no idea what had happened to the painting in the intervening 100 years, because it had been given to them by someone's mother-in-law. Unusually for us, we didn't value the painting on the spot – we took it away to be authenticated. It was valued at £100,000.

"This was a story that typified everything that was good about the show. It did everybody involved a lot of good. It was of huge interest to the show's audience. It was a life-changing event for the owners, who had just retired. And a national treasure was restored to the British Museum, which bought the painting."

Between these gobsmacking moments, the Antiques Roadshow faithful must content themselves with the show's other attractions; in particular, its cast of experts. A rotating brigade of about 70 experts, drawn from the country's auction houses and museums, are whittled down to 20 or so for each show. For some, like Henry Sandon, the avuncular ceramics expert (or " potaholic", as he refers to himself) who has been with the programme since its second series, Antiques Roadshow has become a surrogate family and a ticket to unbidden celebrity.

"So many people come on the show just to meet you," says Sandon, 79. "I think it's really rather wonderful. We've got such a following on television now – and not just here, but all over the world – that we have become mini film stars. Sometimes, it can be a bit embarrassing. We did a show in Toronto recently where there was a separate queue for people who wanted to kiss me!"

Sandon is aware that his public's expectations are high, and endeavours to handle their disappointment sensitively. "I don't ever want to let anyone down harshly," he says. "You can always say something nice. I might say, 'It's not worth much, dear, but put it away for 100 years, and it will be.' Or I can praise the bag it came in. I always believe that if they enjoy the thing, it doesn't matter whether it's worth 10p or £10m."

Hilary Kay, who joined the show as a 21-year-old prodigy in 1979, and who sits as an expert on the "miscellaneous" tables at the Roadshow, has stayed with the show so long because of the bonhomie. "I'd say I probably see more of my mates on Roadshow than I do my own family," she says. "We have a great time. There's a big dinner the night before the shoot happens, which is always fun.

"We have a strong bond between the experts, which is surprising. A lot of us work, or used to work, for competing auction houses. In the normal course of events, you wouldn't cross the road to pull a competitor out of the way of an approaching bus, but for the time of the show, you have this great spirit where everyone works as a team willingly."

It was ever thus, Parker remembers. "One of the things that sticks with me from doing the reunion show we did this year was all the gentlemanly people who populate the production team," he says. "They were exactly as I remember them in 1977. It's the sort of programme that attracts a certain sort of person. You couldn't be a ratbag and work on Antiques Roadshow. It just wouldn't work out."

The latest inheritor of Parker's mantle is Michael Aspel, who has presented the show from 2000 until this series, when he will stand down to make way for Fiona Bruce. It has been an unusually emotional decision for the presenter. "Normally, when I've finished shows, it hasn't been quite this sad," he says. "I've always thought, 'What's next?' I've left this show while I'm enjoying it, and while it has been my decision, this has been difficult.

"I was so nervous when I took over. I felt as if Hugh [Scully] had been so brilliant at his job, and that, in Antiques Roadshow, I was in the presence of a very precious thing. I didn't want to trivialise the show in any way. What I found out was that the experts themselves are incredibly jolly, which made the whole thing very jolly. Although I've become more comfortable in the show, I was still aware that it was among the most special things I've done."

Antiques Roadshow's audience, as one might expect, hate change. Like Aspel, they view their programme as a "precious thing". So when, in the mid-1990s, the editors decided to add a special feature, halfway through the show, where experts entered a stately home or site of interest near the Roadshow's venue and looked at its collections, the audience revolted. The feature was duly ditched, and the editors had learnt their lesson.

Simon Shaw, the current series editor, though, has tried to coax Roadshow into the 21st century. Younger experts have been brought on to the programme. High-definition television has enhanced the look of the items and revealed the spartan cosmetic routines of the experts.

And, through careful choice of venues, Shaw has quietly subverted the idea of antiques as elitism. "We're just as likely now to visit a working pottery or an airfield as a stately home," he says. "We've completely ditched sports halls as well. We need variety in our venues, just as we do in the items we feature. That way, we can send off messages that all sorts of people enjoy antiques. Otherwise, I'd be unwise to change the formula."

Shaw needn't worry about elitism. Antiques Roadshow has never been the preserve of the affluent classes. Indeed, in his 19 years, Scully found that the more middle-class the venue, the less interesting the finds. "I remember one year where we went to Edinburgh and Glasgow," he says. "You'd expect us to do much better in Edinburgh than in Glasgow, but in fact, the reverse was true. I asked a lady from Morningside why this should be, and she replied, 'The people of Edinburgh do not wish their neighbours to know what they've got.' It's true. We've always done better in Northern industrial towns than we ever do in Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Chester and the rest."

One thing that might have troubled the show's producers is the question of security. On a programme where items worth hundreds of thousands of pounds have been unearthed, and where a large number of relatively valuable items are, for a day, collected under one roof, the scope for theft must be worrying. But John Neal, the engineering manager who is responsible for the entire production of the show – including deploying two tons of lighting and 15 miles of cabling – says there is rarely trouble.

"I've been working on the show for 22 years, and the only theft I can think of happened in Liverpool," he says. "We had a team from the police's Crime Reduction Unit on set some time ago. They laid out a presentation on how to avoid burglary and what not, and left out some leaflets. At some time during the show, those leaflets were stolen. But nothing valuable, to my knowledge, has ever been taken, either on the show or as a result of appearing on the show. Things get broken – it's inevitable. But, as Sandon would say, 'You came with one item, and you went home with many.'"

The tea-towel niceness that you find in Sandon, and everywhere on Antiques Roadshow, is integral to the show's success. This is an England (despite trips to exotic locations such as Carmarthen and the Isle of Lewis, there's no doubt that this is an English, rather than a British, programme) as it was, or might have been, had not ghastly things like the 21st century got in the way. This is an England that celebrates the patient queue, the village fête and the grandeur of the countryside. It is John Major's bucolic vision rendered in high definition.

"I have a feeling that we are so popular around the world because this is what people feel the country is like," Sandon says. "[The show] looks at England and looks at its people at their most ordinary. They come on the show and all they want to do is share a little pot with you. We did a show in Rochester Cathedral this year, when the sunlight was coming through the windows and there were people streaming in, and I thought, 'How wonderful.' Because it seemed that that is how it must have been in medieval days when a market might have been going on inside the cathedral. We offer a little slice of old England."

This little slice of old England continues to see off sexier, more modern rivals. A deluge of antique shows – Bargain Hunt, Cash in the Attic et al – have tried to tap into Antiques Roadshow's success, but none have matched its appeal. And, 30 years on, it shows no sign of slowing. "The only reason I can think that Antiques Roadshow would ever stop," Aspel says, "is if some Young Turk at the BBC decided he didn't like it." Pity the Young Turk who does. He will die a death by a thousand fountain-penned letters.

Genuine Faberge
At a Roadshow at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, Geoffrey Munn met a kindred spirit – a jewellery addict who had bought herself a bumper bag of brooches at auction for just £30. Munn sifted happily through the collection, valuing the items at a handsome £125 to £150 each. Then, spying – quite literally – a diamond in the rough, the expert picked out a piece from the motley haul that turned out to be a genuine Fabergé. He valued the pink brooch at £10,000, at which point the lady asked politely if her friend might hold her hand.

Alice Havers painting
At a London Roadshow, a lady brought in a much-loved painting that she had inherited via her mother, who had been a housekeeper in the home where it had originally hung. The owner had fallen in love with the painting as a child. The expert finally cracked the identity of the artist for her – the little known Alice Havers – and valued the work at around £20,000. Unhappily, the woman could not afford to insure it. Happily, it was later auctioned for £45,000.

William Burges bottle
David Battie and his fellow expert came across a lost curiosity in Skegness, when a guest brought in a small brown bottle decorated with a spider's web of silver, enamel, pearl and moonstone. The item was made and owned by the Victorian design giant William Burges and photographs of it are on show in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but the piece had been missing for much of the 20th century. The owner revealed that his dad had picked it up for a few bob in 1950. No expert himself, he was shocked to hear them value the bottle at between £20,000 and £30,000.

8th-Century Anglo-Saxon ring
Jewellery expert Geoffrey Munn says the most exciting item he ever had the pleasure to appraise on Antiques Roadshow was an 8th-century Anglo-Saxon ring, found by its owner among some hedge clippings in his garden. The man's wife had told him it was the sort of tacky item that might have come from a Christmas cracker. But, "dying with excitement", the moustachioed Munn told his bemused guest that he should insure the ring – lost, no doubt, by some ancient nobleman – for something in the region of £10,000.

"Rather fancy soap dish"
When she bought it for 25p, the owner of a "rather fancy soap dish" got a pitying look from the junk-shop assistant. Her husband told her she should stop buying such rubbish. When the Antiques Roadshow expert got their hands on it, she learnt that her soap dish was in fact an 18th-century Delftware bleeding bowl worth over £5,000. She was so shocked by the news that the expert felt compelled to offer her a cup of tea to calm her nerves.

Beatrix Potter
Rare-book aficionado Clive Farahar seemed almost overcome when a guest arrived clutching 23 paintings and sketches by Beatrix Potter. Many of them were early drawings of rabbits and foxes from the decade prior to the publication of Peter Rabbit – each worth between £5,000 and £10,000. Farahar's prospecting hit paydirt with a pair of paintings of familiar rabbits. He guessed their worth at £50,000 each, bringing the total to almost £250,000. Unfortunately, they belonged to the guest's in-laws.

Treasure seekers: meet the experts

Hugh Scully
Scully started presenting Antiques Roadshow in 1981. It would be the start of a 19-year uninterrupted stint on the programme. Despite initially knowing little about antiques, Scully was chosen to present Talking About Antiques on the radio in 1967, and, in 1970, became the presenter of Collector's World.

Hilary Kay
An expert in scientific instruments, toys and rock'*'roll memorabilia, Kay joined Antiques Roadshow at 21. She used to work as an auctioneer at Sotheby's and is now self-employed as a consultant, lecturer, writer and broadcaster. She also founded a company that lays on antiques-related corporate evenings.

Michael Aspel
The outgoing host of Antiques Roadshow has been an everpresent figure on British television screens since the 1960s. Before he joined the show in 2000, he had made his name with shows such as Crackerjack, Aspel & Company, and This is Your Life. He has no further television commitments after Antiques Roadshow.

Henry Sandon
The elder statesman of Roadshow and a self-confessed " potaholic", Sandon, an expert on porcelain, joined the show in its second series. Having trained at the Royal Worcester Porcelain Works, Sandon was given his break on television by Arthur Negus, who invited him on to the BBC's Going for a Song. Now 79, Sandon continues to lecture and write books, as well as solving pot mysteries on Antiques Roadshow. His son, John, is also a porcelain expert on the programme.

Bunny Campione
Campione, who brings much-needed glamour to Antiques Roadshow, worked at Sotheby's for 23 years in furniture and then the collector's department, before becoming a consultant to Christie's and starting her own company, Campione Fine Art. She specialises in miniature furniture, soft toys, automata, birdcages and dolls' houses.

Paul Atterbury
A writer and consultant specialising in 19th- and 20th-century art and design, Atterbury has an astonishing memory for fine detail. He holds a special place in his capacious brain for Pugin, and relics of the great age of the railways.

Tim Wonnacott
Wonnacott's father and grandfather were both auctioneers in the South-west of England, and young Tim followed in their footsteps. He studied at the Victoria and Albert Museum before joining Sotheby's in 1978, where he worked for 25 years. As well as appearing as a furniture and clocks expert on Antiques Roadshow, Wonnacott presents the BBC's Bargain Hunt.

Eric Knowles
With his bow tie and rouged cheeks, Knowles is Antiques Roadshow's (admittedly sober) answer to Keith Floyd. A director at Bonhams, he is an expert in Art Deco, and started the Bygones and the Curiosities departments at his auction house.

Peter Nahum
Nahum is best known to viewers of Antiques Roadshow as the man who discovered Richard Dadd's long lost masterpiece, Artist's Halt in the Desert. An expert in Pre-Raphaelite paintings and British paintings between 1930 and 1950, Nahum is an art dealer with his own gallery in St James.

David Battie
A ceramics, glass and Oriental art expert who bears a passing resemblance to the actor Tom Selleck, Battie brings a smooth charm to Antiques Roadshow. He joined Sotheby's in 1965 as a book porter, becoming a director of the company before retiring in 1999.

The new series of Antiques Roadshow starts on Sunday at 8pm on BBC1