“It’s so British, isn’t it?” Between mouthfuls of scone and jam, Fiona Bruce gestures to the scene in front of her. Balmoral Castle shimmers in the pale summer light, its manicured grounds dotted with marquees, vintage cars and red parasols. The vibe is part garden party, part highfalutin car boot sale – and as quintessentially British as understatement and afternoon tea.
A year after appearing as a guest when Antiques Roadshow went to Hillsborough Castle, the Queen has thrown open her Royal Deeside retreat to the programme. “There aren’t many shows that would get invited to Balmoral,” says Bruce proudly, revealing that the production has been almost 18 months in the planning. “We’re extremely pleased to be here, even if there are many more security issues than usual.” In the hotel last night, cast and crew were laying bets on whether their host would be in attendance today. The verdict? “Of course she won’t!” Bruce laughs. “But the Queen has asked when it’s going to be on, so they clearly watch it.”
Word is that the Queen is lying low elsewhere on the estate at Craigrowan Lodge, a mile from the castle, although nobody is saying as much out loud. Michael and Maureen Good, a local couple trying their luck today with some Japanese art deco vases, typify the air of protectiveness surrounding the royals in these parts. “Most folk know where they are, but we tend to give them their privacy,” says Maureen. Where is the Queen today? “Hmm, yes,” she parries, maintaining a poker face. Is she nearby? “Mmm.” Hint taken.
The Queen and Prince Philip on Antiques Roadshow
In the absence of a glimpse of the royal headscarf and wellies, some 3,000 fortune-hunters seem happy to share Balmoral with a national treasure. Unflappable and relentlessly can-do, Fiona Bruce brings a surge of star quality to this al fresco jumble sale; one lady almost bursts into tears when she sees the presenter striding (Bruce doesn’t do strolling) past.
She poses for pics with the tea tent staff, mucks in at the reception desk and is happily sidetracked by cute dogs – no Corgis – and star-struck children. Her energy and curiosity drive the show. She truffles out one particularly bizarre item, which looks like a cross between a violin and a medieval instrument of torture. Owner Steve Lowe found it in a barn on his farm in Arbuthnott in Aberdeenshire. Rushing off to locate an expert and a camera, Bruce discovers that it is, in fact, an olden-day seed-throwing device once used by farmers. Alas, it proves to be of greater interest than value.
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Aside from a few large items transported here in advance, the drama on Antiques Roadshow unfolds in real time. “The great thing is, I have no idea what will happen on the day,” says Bruce. “I see myself as a journalist first and foremost, and in terms of using that skill here, I have to think, is there a story? Is there a beginning, a middle and an end? The show is all about telling stories – and it’s instant. I love that.”
Some “stories” have a particular resonance in these regal surroundings. Bruce pounces on a pair of spades once used by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for tree planting, and later sold as part of the Duke of Buckinghamshire’s estate in 1921. “My parents inherited them from an old lady who absolutely hated them,” says owner John Sim. “She put one in the coal shed and one out in the garden. She couldn’t bear them.” Their long, opulent velvet handles were custom-designed to ensure the royal mitts remained unblistered and grime-free. A world away from standard B&Q dirt-diggers, they’re given a valuation that would buy you a decent-sized shed to house them in.
Bruce clearly relishes unearthing these nuggets of personal history. She has presented Antiques Roadshow since 2008, and still can’t quite believe her luck. “The offer came completely out of the blue,” she says. “I was thrilled. You don’t often get asked to work on programmes that you already enjoy watching.” Now on its 38th season, the show has become an institution. “I’m told that should some great calamity ever befall our nation and the BBC needs something to calm our fevered brow, Antiques Roadshow will be broadcast,” says Bruce, grinning. “Personally, I’d go to rolling news, but there you are…”
Any changes occur at a suitably stately pace. This series’ new innovation is the Spot the Fake slot. Today, medals are under the microscope. “We do try to evolve the show,” she says. “It has changed, but not dramatically. The format is what makes it successful, and we’re not going to mess around with that.”
It’s an attitude that finds favour among the crowds at Balmoral. Since 9.30am, when the theme music rang out over the grounds and the gates opened, a steady stream of arrivals have been happily embarking on that most British of pastimes: queuing politely and muttering about the weather. They clutch bags, boxes, paintings and poles. Furniture is ferried in bath chairs, sinister shapes shrouded in black plastic.
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Few visitors have come as far as Deborah Hughes-Owen. Planning a visit to her sister in Devon from her home in Australia, she realised the dates coincided with the Balmoral recording. “From Tiverton to Aberdeen? I thought, yes, I can do that!” says Deborah, who is making the entire trip on public transport. “I got the sleeper up to Aberdeen, then the bus to Ballater, stayed overnight, and then I bussed out here this morning with a lot of other very excited people.”
Deborah is testament to Antiques Roadshow’s global reach. Broadcast throughout the world, it has filmed in 11 countries and has off-shoots in Canada, the United States, Finland, Holland, Germany and Sweden, but it seems to have really caught on Down Under. “Every week we film, there are people from Australia,” says Bruce. “I’m not blasé about it. I’m thrilled that they’ve planned their trip to take in the show.”
It’s not just Aussies. Today’s turnout includes Germans, a Dutch tour party, a Chinese lady and an Irishman in a top hat. They all eventually wend their way to the central reception hub, manned by four “generalists”, who assess each object and assign it to a specialist. It’s an impressively well-oiled operation: over 90 people work long days on each episode.
The antiques army marches on its stomach, and as the cast and crew grab lunch in the catering van, one familiar face is singularly unimpressed with the rations. Specifically, the soup. “It’s a disgrace!” shouts the stressed specialist. Bruce offers a consoling word as she leaves. “We’re a close-knit bunch,” she says later. “I’ve got good friends here. The night before each show is a big reunion.”
Outside a makeshift storage room, a guard protects the most valuable items. These include a magnificent pair of silver stags that are so lifelike they could almost have wandered down from the surrounding hills. “There were originally four, but two ran off,” says their lively owner Zilla Tuck, whose grandparents were given them in the 1890s as a wedding present by the Duke of Atholl.
“Resplendent, stunning,” murmurs silver specialist Gordon Foster, inspecting them with his magnifying glass. The old deers have aged well: a beaming Foster reveals that each four-legged beast is worth a five-figure sum. The news creates a palpable buzz. Tables are shifted, camera angles debated, microphones clipped and the gathering crowd gently manoeuvred. The stags’ story unfolds amid many pauses and retakes. “Lose a second,” affable but brisk director Jan Waldron tells Foster. The sequence, which will last only four or five minutes on television, takes 45 minutes to set up and film.
The momentum starts to wind down around four o’clock, but not before Sandy Henderson arrives with a large, piebald cow on wheels. It’s the kind of eccentric item that has made Antiques Roadshow a beloved British fixture for almost 40 years. Believing that the cow dates to the late 19th century – “possibly German” – Sandy paid £500 for it recently at auction. “My wife liked it,” he says. “It was supposed to have mooed, but it didn’t.” His back straightens almost imperceptibly. “I’ve rectified that.” Amused expert Hilary Kay pokes its rump and pulls its udders and tells him it was probably used as a display object for a European shop or business. But is it a cash cow? We’ll find out when the programme is aired. You might say it’s by Royal Appointment.
Antiques Roadshow is on BBC1 tonight (Sunday 6th December) at 8.00pm
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