BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow is about as British as it gets. It began in the 1970’s and it has been going strong ever since. The format doesn’t change and it is a very simple one. Members of the public turn up at a given location clutching their objects, good, bad, indifferent and spectacular hoping for a “roadshow moment” in which they find out that the oddity which has been lurking unloved in the back of their garage, or bought for fifty pence at a car boot sale, is more interesting or valuable than they thought. It makes good reliable, unthreatening television and it has always been popular, as just about everyone has bric a brac in their homes which holds memories and associations. It is a show about antiques (and given the size of the industry which helps objects to make their way from one generation to another there are surprisingly few of those on television) but more than that it is a show about people and their stories. The objects are often emotional triggers, gateways to the past.
Given that they have been making the programme for many years now you would expect that they have pretty much worked out how to do it and judging from my experience at the Spa in Scarborough they certainly have. There was a large Antiques Roadshow team, supplemented by local stewards from the venue and the hundreds of people who made their way through the Spa were shepherded with care and courtesy. I don’t say this lightly. It was a mindset which ran through the whole day and it shone out of everyone who was involved. Even the experts who often had to make their way through the crowds to consult each other never once failed to say excuse me as they slipped through a queue. When you are asking people to queue for what may be several hours if you have brought a ceramic item this is not a trivial point. It really matters. It is also an attitude which is catching. People who are treated well will respond with patience and goodwill to a situation which might otherwise be pretty grim. Happy people are good to be around. The Spa is a small venue for the kind of numbers who arrived so that made it even more vital here. Courtesy is not just oiling the wheels in a situation of this kind, it is the only thing which makes them turn.
The other thing which made it fun, rather than a tedious wait, was that there was always something to watch. Filming is happening right next to you as you wait and you could watch others having their moment with an expert at one of the small tables set among the crowds as they reached the head of their queue. Everybody was on first name terms with the experts after watching them for so long (Antiques Roadshow experts tend to hang around long enough to become institutions among its fans) and excited viewers were pointing their favourites out to each other across the room. Antiques Roadshow viewers all have their favourite experts and one of the pleasures of the day was the chance to observe their different characters as they worked and see how they approached what was a long, demanding day. Some, like Rupert Maas and Geoffery Munn were quiet, focussed and intense while others like Andy McConnell enjoyed performing to anyone who wanted to listen, drawing people in and sharing what they had to say beyond the individual person who the object belonged to. We had plenty of time to listen to Andy as we waited in the ceramics queue and the lady behind me finally declared, “he’s off his head on glass that one”. It was meant as a compliment and it showed the other main element of the shows appeal.
There are few things more beguiling than someone who has great knowledge of and enthusiasm for a subject. All the roadshow experts have that, and sometimes for the most surprising things. They may express it in different ways but it is always there and it is always a joy to listen to them. By the time that you have been among them for a few hours watching them in action you can’t help but be impressed by how untiring and focussed they are. There wasn’t a single expert who surprised me by being other than the way I had expected from watching on Sunday evenings. Not one. When they are faced with their greatest interest in life they can’t be anything but themselves. They also work as a team far more than you would imagine that they do, often leaving their posts to show each other things and compare notes.
It’s a long journey to reach your expert. It took me four hours. The reception is where your first queue will end. It has a group of people who work as a kind of clearing house to assess where you should be sent and I daresay let down gently those who may have brought something which really is of no interest whatsoever, but once you are through that hurdle you will have your chance. You are very unlikely indeed to be picked out for filming, but even if you are not you will get a proper “Roadshow moment” of your own with one of the experts. You will enjoy a real chat which is not rushed and be given some solid information. They know how long you have waited, so it does go back to that ethos of politeness but it is also because you are showing them something that they want to see. They will be interested and engaged.
My own “moment” was at one of the two ceramics tables with Lars Tharp. He is one of my favourites so this was a stroke of luck. When I got out my two Walton “toys,” a gardener and a lady gardener which were made around 1820, he immediately exclaimed “Oh! A little bit of England” My main concern, having bought them from the web judging only by photographs about ten years ago, was to back up my own judgement and check that they were genuine. He had no doubts that they were “right as rain” and liked them very much. He also asked me what my “most wanted” would be and I said an Obadiah Sherratt Lion. We both agreed that later Staffordshire is not a patch on the early pieces and I went on my way very happy. I just wish I had thought to tell him that I had repatriated one of the “little bits of England” from America!
It is a fascinating experience all round if you are a fan of the show, and one of the best opportunities to people watch that you could ever hope for. Be warned though……. Take food and drink and maybe something portable to sit on if you are older, and wear your comfiest shoes. You really do have to love queueing!