Inside the National Trust: Michael Buerk on his new ITV show

The BBC newsreader chats about getting into bed with ITV, meeting the eccentric people who keep our heritage alive and the success of Downton Abbey


“It’s very much a kind of ‘make a prat of Michael Buerk’ [series],” explains the journalist and newsreader, when we catch up with him about his new show Inside the National Trust (12:25pm, Sundays on ITV).


The BBC corespondent and part time culture-fiend, who spends his spare time “trumping around ancient ruins” in the Mediterranean, was excited about switching channels to work on this new 20 part cultural show. “It’s rather amusing that the National Trust should get into bed with ITV,” he says. “Possibly because their interests, although aligned, are directly opposite…the idea about ITV doing something so quintessentially middle aged and middle class for the National Trust, it’s really terribly good fun.”

Buerk get his hands dirty on ITV, while visiting six grand properties. He polishes door knobs, attempts to light traditional kitchen fires and dresses in period garb, just like the volunteers at these heritage sites across the nation.

“It’s very much a behind the scenes [show],” explains Buerk. There’s a huge army of volunteers who keep these sites running, “and what a really wacky, eccentric bunch of people they are,” he laughs, recalling a “goat woman” at Wigmore Hall in Cambridgeshire. “I think she’s a classics lecturer at Cambridge most of the time, but the rest of the time she’s mucking out goats because she – not to put too fine a point on it – loves goats.”

Visit the nation’s beautiful heritage buildings with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details

Buerk’s favourite part of making this show? Being able to poke around these temples of past success. “Like a lot of journalism, it’s just a very good excuse for being nosey at someone else’s expense,” he says.

In their heyday, the grand properties in the National Trust’s collection may have had 40 or 50 indoor servants working in them, for eight hours a day. Plus, some would have had an extra 90 gardeners in the grounds. While it’s wonderful to be able to see extraordinary architecture and décor inside these £50 million+ structures, it’s even more fascinating to find out about the sort of people who lived there. And this, claims Buerk, is the key to the success of dramas like Downton Abbey.

“Not only were there Lords and Ladies and great industrialists who lived there, but there was also life below stairs. And it’s endlessly fascinating,” he says. “It’s the key to all those series like Upstairs, Downstairs all the way through to Downton Abbey. You’re empathising with both the people who are at the top of the stairs and the people below stairs who are serving them.”

Buerk particularly enjoyed visiting Cragside, a late Victorian mansion in Northumberland built by ship building and arms manufacturer Lord Armstrong: “He built most of the British navy and most of the Japanese navy on Tyneside. He was the most extraordinary inventor of all sorts of things and by the standards of our day, a billionaire, one of the richest people in the world,” Buerk explains. “He planted six million trees, invented all sorts of amazing things in the house – it’s a particularly stunning place and I really enjoyed that, but I really enjoyed all of them.”

Nose around National Trust buildings and uncover secrets of the past with Michael Burke every Sunday at 12:25pm, on ITV.

Visit the nation’s beautiful heritage buildings with Radio Times Travel, see here for more details