Switch on `Period Flavour' and watch someone nick your knick-knacks

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Today's story is set in the wonderful world of antiques.

"And welcome today to Bratden," said John Vavasour, "a great Georgian house in the Midlands, and home to Lady Arnica Nelson, who has graciously allowed the TV cameras inside for the first time."

John Vavasour's highly polished smile, so shiny you can almost see your own reflection in it, will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen the television programme Period Flavour. Every week he goes round another stately home owned by someone who has a lot of furniture and not much money, and pays them to show him round. It is a way of letting the public into your house without actually having to have them on the premises. The programme is watched widely by other owners of stately homes, and by burglars, who often get good ideas from watching it.

"Gosh, this pair of Dresden figures in the hall must be worth at least pounds 50,000," John Vavasour was saying.

"At least that," said Lady Nelson. "I have absolutely no interest in the financial worth of the lovely things in my home - to me they are just things I am very proud and fortunate to possess - but certainly the last time I had the contents valued they were put at over pounds 60,000, so they must be pushing pounds 70,000 by now."

Now, it has not gone unnoticed by the owners of stately homes that they tend to be burgled shortly after they are featured on television, so the supply of people willing to be exposed on Period Flavour is not as ample as it used to be. And those who do go on the programme tend to take certain precautions, such as locking up their most valuable possessions for a long while afterwards. In Lady Nelson's case, she had gone a step further. She had insisted that if the TV cameras came to her house, the location of the house must not be mentioned, the name of the house must be changed and indeed so must her own name.

This had been done. Bratden was an invented name, for the house was really called Chorlton Court. Lady Nelson's real name was Mrs Gregory-Aske. Indeed, the woman who showed John Vavasour round the house that day was neither Lady Nelson nor Mrs Gregory-Aske, but an actress playing the part of the owner, for Mrs Gregory-Aske had specifically requested that she should not be seen on screen. John Vavasour had smiled his charming, well-varnished smile, and gone along with the whole deception. He was not in a position to object, really, as John Vavasour was not his real name either, but one which (as Ernest Doggle) he had adopted when entering the unreal world of heritage knick-knacks.

"Here is an absolutely priceless Van Dyck which has been at Chorlton for more than 200 years," said the actress.

"Bratden, darling," said John Vavasour. "We're calling the ghastly place Bratden. Do try to remember. Shall we go for another take on that one?"

That was one sequence which do not go out on TV, and it was for this reason that Chorlton Court was not burgled. What the makers of the programme did not realise was that there really was a house in the Midlands called Bratden, owned by a family called Priston-Mill. Mr Priston-Mill was rather surprised to come downstairs in the middle of the night two weeks later and find two burglars ransacking his sitting room. The burglars were also surprised but they recovered from their amazement first and tied Mr Priston- Mill to a chair while they proceeded with their learned looting.

"Where's the Dresden figures?" said one of them, leaning over him.

"What figures?" said Mr Priston-Mill, who didn't even like Dresden.

"The ones on the telly. Don't play innocent with me.

"And where's Lady Nelson? If you don't tell us where they are, we'll get her down and she'll have to tell us."

"Who are you anyway?" said the first burglar, rather inquisitively. "Lady Nelson's boyfriend? Butler? I got the impression she lived by herself."

"Blimey, Bill, you don't suppose this is some other bloke who saw the telly programme, and is on the same mission?"

"Hardly likely," said Bill. "Wouldn't come out on the job in dressing gown and slippers, would he?"

"What on earth are you both talking about?" shouted Mr Priston-Mill. "What television programme? What Lady Nelson?"

By the time the confusion had been cleared up, the burglars were on their way out with the spoils, and Mr Priston-Mill, as he sat lashed to the chair, was devising a plan for suing the programme Period Flavour for having caused his house to be burgled.

How well he succeeded you can read in the newly published `Golden Treasury of Antique Skulduggery', from which this story is gratefully taken.

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