Antiques Roadshow has been a much-loved fixture in most living rooms for years. It was Sunday’s staple diet for our family, along with a roast, Yorkshire puds and all the trimmings. Ask my dad and he will tell you Antiques Roadshow and Time Team are his all-time favourite TV programmes. So naturally as a child I hated them both! They reminded me of mum ironing school shirts and that sinking back-to-school feeling.
Antiques Roadshow also managed to bring about some heated conversations in our family, Dad would recite a mental check list of all the possible heirlooms we could cash in, currently gathering dust in our attic. We’d rummage through them, mum and me captured in sepia-toned delight and dad with a much more Delboy air. My mum would hold up objects as though they were the Crown Jewels. These precious artefacts were probably worth no more than a loaf of bread but then again, also worth the world to our family at least.
The Roadshow will be gracing this part of the country very soon, with June 27th marking a momentous occasion as Fiona Bruce and her team of experts come to Towneley Hall in Burnley. I spoke to three of the presenters in the run-up to the show…
Susan is one of the jewellery experts on the show. She’s originally from Blackburn, owns a gallery in Harrogate and is highly regarded within her field.
“It’s very exciting that the Roadshow is coming to Towneley Hall. I won’t actually be at Towneley as an expert but I will pop in during the day. I actually went to school in Blackburn and my mum still lives in Higherford so I’m not far away from where you are now and it’s lovely that they’re going to Towneley. It’s a lovely place, and with all the history it’s a perfect location for the Roadshow.”
Susan can remember watching the Antiques Roadshow as a child herself. She loved it and never once thought she would be gracing our screens on the iconic programme. It was Lars Tharp who got her started on the show back in 2006. She was working with him at the time and he put her name forward to the BBC bosses. Susan had never been on camera before, had no TV experience at all, but what she did have was a passion and a love of jewellery.
“I hadn’t had any experience on TV so it was extremely nerve-racking! I went to a screen test and just took it from there. Over time you get more used to it, particularly when you’re looking at some quite exciting pieces. You do get the nerves but you get an adrenaline rush as well. It’s quite exciting especially when you’re on a programme that you’ve watched since you were really young.” “When you’re talking about the items that they’re bringing in you can almost go into another world and not think about the cameras watching you and then it becomes much more natural and easier to get the information out of the clients as well. That’s the great thing; you tend to spend a lot of time making sure the clients are relaxed and they enjoy the experience because it is supposed to be an enjoyable experience.” Susan has worked for Christies auctioneers, was head of the jewellery department at Phillips and now has her own business in Harrogate. Starting as the new girl, she has now been part of the Roadshow for six years and still loves every minute of it. “On the Roadshow, you get up in the morning and you have absolutely no idea what might walk through the door. That’s when the whole day becomes very exciting. It is completely unknown; you don’t know what you’re going to do from one moment to the next.
“My favourite is a bracelet that a lady brought in that she’d found in the gutter and taken it to the police station, as you should do, but then nobody claimed it and she was allowed to keep it and she had no idea what it was. She brought it along to one of the Roadshows down south and it turned out to be a bracelet that Queen Victoria had given to one of her maids for her wedding, so it was very exciting. The client loved it because of the history and the fact that she had absolutely no idea that it was going to be something like that! It had the initial VR on it for Victoria Regina and stones set in turquoise and pearls and then there was a lock of hair in the back which could very possibly have belonged to Queen Victoria, which was great.” The bracelet dated from 1861 and
was worth £6,000, not exactly enough for a mansion after all but it became a treasured possession. “It’s the history and how these pieces of jewellery have come to be commissioned and who owned them and why they were fashionable at the time and what the influences were behind them that interests me. Obviously the value is greater the rarer a piece is, which means it’s going to attract more attention when it’s sold. But it’s the fashion as well and what attracted people to the jewellery at the time. So there’s a lot more behind jewellery than it just being a decorative piece to wear. People think that you can only be interested in jewellery if you’re going to buy it, but that’s not the case. You can admire it without actually wearing it as well.”
Eric has been an expert on the Antiques Roadshow for 32 years. He’s a successful TV presenter in his own right and he’s originally from my own home-town. I spoke to him about the changing face of Nelson over the years, the beautiful northern countryside and how growing up in Lancashire inspired his love of history. Fresh back from a trip to Paris filming Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Eric Knowles is an esteemed antique expert and for many, the face of a much-loved British institution.
He started out life in a council house in Nelson, which was a thriving place to live in Eric’s youth and growing up in the shadow of Pendle Hill inspired his love for history and culture. As a boy he was in awe of Towneley Hall. Now that the Antiques Roadshow is coming to Towneley Hall in June, it gives Eric a chance to revisit his past.
“I’m very excited! More than anything I think I’ll be acting as an interpreter! I’ve waited 32 years for the programme to get there as Towneley is very important to me. It was the place I was taken as a small boy and it opened my eyes to history and culture and antiques. I still get very excited coming to Towneley. It feels very special.
“I’ve lived and worked most of my life in London but I still feel very much at home in the North West as my parents live in the North West and my father-in-law lives in Nelson. Pendle Hill has always been a dear friend and always will be. The great draw and the great attraction is the fact that although Nelson as a town has changed quite dramatically since I lived there, the countryside is still the same. I warm when I see Blacko Tower, I warm when I see Roughlee and Barley and places like that. This is my natural habitat.”
Eric says his old Nelson and the town of today are very different. These days Nelson lacks the booming independent trade it once had and there is a sense of a loss of pride which Mary Portas is trying to change with the Town Pilot Scheme.
“I think Nelson is just one of the many victims in the country of the big supermarkets sort of sucking up the trade. To some extent what you see going on is that the small man is driven out because
he just cannot compete. So anything that can reverse the balance gives people their dignity back to be able to work for themselves. On top of that when I was a boy, going into Nelson on a Saturday was a huge buzz. Buses would arrive with hundreds of people. It was never a cultural backwater for me. Whoever was playing on Top of the Pops was top of the bill at the Nelson Imperial Ballroom on the Saturday night and people would come by the coach load to Nelson. I think if somehow that magic can be restored and brought back to the town and give it its civic pride back then that’s great.”
A young northern lad, with fresh air in his lungs and a thirst for history, to one of TV’s leading antique expert. How did it all happen in the first place?
“It was a long time ago. At that stage I had moved south and was working at Bonhams the auctioneers in Knightsbridge. I got a job as a porter, sweeping up, it was a menial job but it was a window of opportunity that I saw and I just went for it. My director had been on the Roadshow for the first few years and he put my name forward.”
Eric had a meeting with the producers who offered him a job handing out tickets. That’s hard to believe these days but during filming, the producer asked him if he knew about a certain type of chair. And of course, being Eric Knowles, he knew all about the chair, and so landed his role from ticket boy to antique expert. Thirty two years ago, did he have any idea the programme would be such a long running success?
“No, of course not! I mean it was niche. You’ve got wall-to-wall antique programmes these days but in those days it was a very small area, a niche market and consequently it was a huge surprise. It’s always been a surprise. I can remember the designer of the programme, when I joined, saying that this could run for another three or four years, you know. Wow, he got that wrong! It went
for another 32 years. This is its 35th year and it’s still the BBC’s number one factual programme so I feel proud and privileged to be involved with it.”
The Antiques Roadshow has become like a treasured antique in itself as well as remaining current for fresh audiences. During this time, Eric has managed to become a prolific multi-tasker. He primarily worked at Bonhams until a few years ago when he was head-hunted by Drewatts Fine Art group where he is now a consultant. He also runs a one-man theatre show where people can bring their antiques to be valued.
He is director of the Moorcroft Art Company, writes for antique magazines and is currently writing his tenth book on the history of Art Deco. He is also a regular face on many TV programmes, such as Antiques Master, The 20th Century Roadshow, Crimewatch UK, Restoration Man and many more, but he says TV is not the glamorous lifestyle people would believe it to be.
“We regularly work 13-hour days. Let’s just say you have to enjoy what your doing to be able to do it. They’re long days on the Antiques Roadshow and very intense but you can’t be cavalier about it. You’ve got to be people friendly and treat them well. Those people have often queued for two or three hours so you’ve got to get it right.” It is his love of history which inspires Eric though. He likes to ask questions and learn about the history through every day artefacts.
“I’m a romantic. I like to think ‘Who owned that cup in 1770 and what sort of life did they lead? Or how did they get from A to B? What did they have for breakfast? Did they ever go on holiday?’ Just little things. How do they cope in a winter like we just had without central heating and what if they had no logs on the fire?
“It’s the social history and these things are just a reflection of what our ancestors saw. They used them on a daily basis but it’s just part of a huge jigsaw of life.”
Eric says he was first inspired by antiques and their history purely from growing up in and around Lancashire.
“The place teems with history. Not only have you got Towneley Hall, you’ve got Whalley Abbey, you’ve got Clitheroe Castle, Pendle Witches, and if you keep going into Yorkshire you’ve got Skipton Castle, over the hill you’ve got the Bronte Parsonage in Haworth, it goes on and on doesn’t it?”
Eric must has seen countless antiques over the years but it still excites him not knowing what is going to come through the door next and there are some antiques that Eric would give an arm and a leg for.
“Well it’s all in Accrington you see. I would love a Tiffany standard lamp or Tiffany table lamp. I love Tiffany glass and I’ve been responsible for the evaluation at the Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington since 1979. I’ve been dealing with that for 30 years. That’s another treasure house you’ve got. That’s one of my favourites.”
Of all the things that Eric has valued on the Antiques Roadshow it was a one-pound vase which was his favourite.
“I think from a monetary point of view, it was the glass vase that came in from Dumfries House. The woman had bought it from a Car Boot for a pound, well she bought the flower for a pound and they gave her the vase for free. The glass vase was by Rene Lalique; it was a rare type. It was just a little squat vase with ferns moulded on the shoulders, about as big as my two fists put together- so not huge. She hadn’t a clue. It was a rare technique that was used to make it. A Lost Wax Process, it’s an ancient technique which goes back to the Ancient Egyptians and I had to tell her it was worth £25,000.”
Delivering that kind of news must be an amazing feeling, even better to be the one who is receiving the news that you are now in possession of a vase worth thousands. “Well, her husband nearly keeled over. They sold it six months later for £26,000 at auction.”
It’s now Fiona’s sixth series with the show and her love of travel and an insatiable curiosity makes Fiona Bruce the perfect choice as the presenter of BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
Rejoining the team for the 36th series as it criss-crosses the country in search of new discoveries has a special poignancy for Fiona Bruce.
“The Antiques Roadshow has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up watching the programme with my family every Sunday evening so it’s an incredible privilege to be invited to present it.” She is no stranger to the world of antiques, having also presented BBC2’s Antiques Show, and her years at the coalface of television news reporting on both Newsnight and Panorama make her uniquely qualified to respond to the stories as they unfold at each Roadshow.
“I went along to Kentwell Hall before joining the show to observe and get a feel of how it works and found it absolutely fascinating. I was so impressed with how patiently people wait and just how popular the event still is after so many years. Three thousand visitors came that day, and watching as so many wonderful things were unwrapped whetted my appetite for hearing the stories behind
them. Like the viewers at home, I want to know when things were made, who made them and how the current owners came by them.”
Fiona’s own taste in decorative objects is eclectic, the result of a childhood spent on the move. “I was born in Singapore and we also lived in Italy and on the Wirral. I used to go to auctions with my parents when we were in England, and every time my father went abroad on business, he brought me back a doll dressed in national costume. “I still remember the thrill of opening those parcels and the pleasure of playing with the dolls.
“I’ve so much enjoyed my first six series of the Antiques Roadshow. I was lucky enough to visit so many fabulous homes and palaces, meet fascinating people and see a wealth of intriguing objects. Presenting the Antiques Roadshow is, for me, one of those rare and very lucky coincidences in television when you get to work on a show that you already love to watch. Exploring the human story behind every object is what makes Antiques Roadshow so fascinating. And everyone loves the agony and ecstasy of the ‘what’s it worth?’ moment. The Antiques Roadshow isn’t just about antiques – its history, beauty and drama all wrapped up in one.”