On a cloudy morning outside Manchester Town Hall, the long queue snaking around Albert Square resembles nothing so much as a procession of refugees escaping a war-torn city.
People are hunched against the wind-blown drizzle that has just started up again. Most of them are trailing old luggage, or carrying hastily wrapped possessions: paintings sticking out of bin liners, jewellery weighing down shopping bags.
Everyone is remarkably cheery under the circumstances, but then they’re not actually fleeing devastation.
They’re just waiting to go on Antiques Roadshow, on the first day of filming for its 34th series.
One man up ahead has a guitar in a sack, which makes me feel a bit less conspicuous – I’m carrying an old banjo in an ill-fitting case, the only antique I could put my hand to – but he’s up at the queue’s final kink, near the door, and I’m at the back, in the rain.
The two women behind me, Eileen and Janet, from Glossop and Hadfield respectively, are unperturbed by the wait.
“We come from a generation that queues, don’t we?” says Eileen. “We do queues,” agrees Janet.
A woman emerges from the building and crosses the square. We ask her what it’s like inside. “Mega-busy,” she says, “and it’s absolutely roasting hot. You just go from one queue to another.”
She’s not kidding. Inside the town hall the queue travels up steps, bends round corners, splits and doubles back on itself. It winds past a spot where cameras and lights are trained on a painting and a Roadshow expert, transforming the queue into a slow-moving audience.
As we progress the air crackles with expectation, but everyone is surprisingly quiet.
On average between 1,500 and 2,000 people attend an Antiques Roadshow taping, but it’s not unusual for 3,000 to turn up (by the end of the day, 3,100 people will have come through the town hall).
It is all the more extraordinary, then, that they are able to guarantee everyone a valuation from one of the 25 to 30 experts on site.
“If you get here by 4.30, you will see an expert,” says the Roadshow’s Olwen Gillespie. “We’ll be here till seven. We consider it a public service.”
It’s now around midday. My immediate goal is the reception area manned by Roadshow staff, who give each object a preliminary assessment before directing their owners to the relevant category: Ceramics, Jewellery, Pictures and Prints, Clocks and Watches, Furniture, Miscellaneous.
I am queueing to be told which queue to join. “Let’s have a look,” says the woman at the kiosk. I pull my banjo from my case, quickly rattling off what little I know about it: it’s late-19th century; it was made in Boston, USA; a vicar gave it to me.
“Sadly we don’t have a musical instruments specialist,” she says. This is something I really should have known – they don’t have them for coins, stamps or rugs, either – but I didn’t have any other antiques worth dragging along.
“What have you got there?” says the woman behind the next reception counter, leaning over to look. “A banjo,” I say.
It’s only when I look up that I realise the woman is Fiona Bruce – BBC newsreader and the face of Antiques Roadshow since 2008 – busily manning a reception station in a spare moment.
“How marvellous,” she says, beaming. “Can you play it?”
“Well, yeah, a little…”
I look at both women. It’s clear from their expectant expressions that they want me to play it right now. I pluck a few notes while they talk about where to send me.
There is a feeling that Lars Tharp in Ceramics might be able to help, but although he has some knowledge of musical instruments, it does not extend to banjos. Instead I’m directed to Jon Baddeley in Miscellaneous.
Stepping into the neo-Gothic Great Hall, I can see how complex a machine the Roadshow really is. The queues snake past all the tables, allowing you to eavesdrop on the valuations.
A man is showing an expert his books full of old photos of cities around the world. “I’ve got two on Australia, but I’m in trouble at home because I can’t find the bloody things!”
At the front, two specialists are showing series editor Simon Shaw what could turn out to be the big find of the day: a pair of carved friezes in Dieppe ivory.
Punters who bring in items deemed worthy of filming are whisked into another room, to have their make-up done, and to wait their turn. Behind me Pictures expert Rupert Maas is poring over a print with a magnifying glass.
“I’ve just got a couple of other things,” says its owner, reaching into a bag that clearly contains more than two other things. “That’s all right,” says Maas, smiling.
Given the number of pieces they have to look at, the specialists spend a remarkable amount of time with each person, most of whom seem more interested in telling a story – of a collector’s passion, or an object’s progress down the generations – than in hearing a valuation.
I tell Simon Shaw I’m amazed by the kindness and patience shown by his team of experts. “Well, they’re horrible behind the scenes,” he jokes.
At long last, it is my turn at the Miscellaneous table. I sit down opposite Jon Baddeley and hand him the banjo.
“We don’t see a lot of these,” he says, turning it over. “We see a lot of violins.” Most of those, he acknowledges, are student models of indeterminate origin.
“This is from Boston,” I say, “from around 1895, I think.”
“I know they’re mass-produced instruments,” he says, pointing at the finger board. “But these inlays aren’t.” He turns it over again.
It’s clear that we have both just about reached the limits of our anecdotal expertise on this particular object, but I begin to feel that nagging desire
to tell a story: about the vicar who gave it to me, in several pieces; the money I have spent having it repaired; and the amount of time I wasted looking online, trying to figure out what sort of bridge to put on it.
But there are people behind me, in an unbroken trail that leads all the way back out to Albert Square. It’s time for my valuation.
“I’d say between £300 and £500,” says Baddeley. “It’s a great piece, and it’s great you’re using it. You’re not going to sell it.”
I smile, not saying what almost everyone must think at this moment: “Aren’t I?”