To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Antiques Roadshow, Fiona Bruce would like to clear a few things up. One, even though we recently saw her “swanking about the grounds of Castle Howard in Yorkshire”, she doesn’t get to sleep in the country piles and stately homes she visits. “We stay at the Premier Inn,” she says. “Or, sometimes, Holiday Inn Express.”
Two, the Antiques Roadshow doesn’t actually go to that many stately homes anyway. “This week we’re at Newcastle Civic Centre,” she says. “Which is Brutalist architecture. We went to a railway station in Minehead and we did one show in a Victorian water treatment works with beautiful tiling and incredible Gothicrevival ironwork. I mean, it was a temple to sewage!”
And while she’s at it, Bruce would like to challenge some myths about herself. The imperious tone that delivers inevitably bad news with icy calm on the BBC’s six and ten o’clock bulletins, as well as commanding the attention of more than six million Antiques Roadshow viewers, is not the product of Roedean or Cheltenham Ladies College.
“I’m middle-class these days and I speak quite poshly but I went to a comprehensive school in New Cross, a pretty tough area of south-east London,” she says.
“I loved my time there but it had its rough elements. I remember some of the girls had taken a dislike to one of the girls in my year and they just ran en masse down New Cross Road to beat her up. I dropped my aitches and my Ts to try and fit in. At home my parents were going, ‘Where did this come from?’ Then I got more of a grip and just spoke normally, like I do at home.”
And she wasn’t – as has often been reported – a punk rocker “No. There is this thing that I was a punk, but I missed it by two or three years. I liked Duran Duran. I wasn’t cool enough to go full New Romantic, but definitely had the frilly blouse, and we would go out every night. I wasn’t an abstemious teenager.”
She names her youthful haunts: “Camden Palace, the Hare and Billet, the Prince of Wales… My favourite drinks were vodka and lime, Martini and lemonade or a Snowball. Oh my God, Snowballs. Dreadful. Teethrottingly sweet!”
Furthermore, she isn’t at all school marmish when it comes to dealing with the group of very clever, often eccentric and occasionally bow-tied experts who are her Roadshow colleagues. “No, I’m not schoolmarmish!” she says. “Some of them are very much personal friends. They’re a fascinating bunch of people.”
What about the ceramics and glass expert David Battie – the only expert constantly on the show since it began – who recently told Radio Times that he wrote Bruce a love poem in the style of Dylan Thomas? “I can’t believe he said that,” she says. “David is the loveliest man, so tender-hearted and brilliant. But he’s completely barking as well.” Which in large part explains the appeal of a programme that Bruce, now 53, has been presenting for ten series.
In the manner of a 1950s Ealing comedy, Antiques Roadshow delivers a cavalcade of British eccentrics to the screen, but not one as rooted in the values of Middle England as you might think. “Middle England is also a class thing, and that’s not the case on the Roadshow,” she says. “We aim to be as representative as we can. The sort of income level of the people who come along varies dramatically. Most people are not bringing things of great value; the overwhelming tranche that we see is stuff that most of us have inherited from Granny and it’s worth diddly squat. But then, among those, sometimes you find extraordinary things.”
Sometimes the show’s most compelling moments are about the stories attached to objects as much as the items themselves. Roadshow expert Ronnie Archer Morgan became understandably emotional at Castle Howard this year when a member of the public brought in some much-bashed-about Sooty and Sweep puppets, possibly the same puppets the immensely popular children’s television entertainer Harry Corbett allowed the five-year-old Archer Morgan to play with at his National Children’s Home in 1955.
When Archer Morgan admitted it was the happiest memory of his childhood (and that he hadn’t had any toys of his own to play with), even Bruce’s lip began to wobble. “I shed a tear,” she says. “I’d have put my arm around him but I just couldn’t reach. It was intensely moving. I’m not very good at talking to someone who then wells up and not reacting in some physical way. I can’t just stand there.”
Her other job, as an acclaimed news journalist, requires the opposite approach. “I once interviewed a young woman who’d been abused by a gang of men in ways too horrific to repeat in Radio Times,” she says. “I’ll never forget the details of what she told me. But because I was doing it for the news, I didn’t put my arm round her. It’s not that there are two Fiona Bruces and it’s not that I don’t have compassion. I wanted to accord that young woman the respect of giving her the space to talk.”
When Bruce was herself a young woman, arriving at Oxford University after four years in New Cross, she didn’t feel like she belonged. “I was chippy,” she says of her first year at Hertford College. “I met someone with a title on my first day, Baronet von Something, and I thought: ‘Look at me, I’ve really grafted. Who are these people who have just waltzed into Oxford? I don’t want to hang out with those people. They’re nothing like me.’ I was very unhappy and couldn’t find my place. Because I had such close friendships at home, I found it quite difficult to leave those.”
Eventually, she got a job “stacking shelves in Safeway” and found friends amid women’s rights groups, campaigning for female students to have access to female tutors to discuss women’s issues. She won that battle and is still ready to fight her corner. Famously, she dismissed being voted Rear of the Year in 2010 as “hypocritical and demeaning”.
Bruce with antique expert David Battie
Ask her if she thinks women at the BBC are treated fairly when it comes to pay and she says: “The salary list spoke for itself. I know the Prime Minister felt the BBC needed to get its house in order.” Was she shocked by the gender disparity? “I wasn’t taken aback. I was disappointed. The BBC is trying to get its house in order. Let’s see what comes out.”
Bruce is well off by most standards. According to figures released by the corporation, she is paid between £350,000 and £399,000. Huw Edwards gets £550,000 to £599,000. She’s married to film executive Nigel Sharrocks, with two children at public school (rather than comps in New Cross), so money is clearly not an issue.
Which brings us to the other part of the show’s great appeal – the money shot. The look on the face of a plumber from Matlock when he discovers the paperweight his great-grandad’s kept betting slips under is actually a Fabergé egg.
“On the American version of the show they go completely bananas,” says Bruce. “Whereas in Britain we’re rather more reserved. So, we never know if someone’s going to cry, express shock, astonishment, great joy or none of the above. I think people feel it’s just rather un-British and rather tasteless to be thrilled that they’ve just gone, ‘Ha! There’s something here that’s worth tens of thousands!’ Though, I’ll be honest, it’s always slightly disappointing as a production team when someone just goes, ‘Hmm.’ ”