It was a typical Antiques Roadshow day. The crowds had gathered, host Fiona Bruce was facing the camera to start recording and the sound operator called for hush, when a voice at the back piped up, “That Fiona Bruce – she’s old, but she’s got good teeth”.
Getting her opening lines out cannot have been easy after that, but it is a nice illustration of the perils of dealing with an unpredictable public on a show that has become a BBC institution over the past 34 years.
Bruce has been hosting Antiques Roadshow since 2008, having come up through the BBC news, current affairs and documentary ranks since joining the corporation in 1989.
She has been a news presenter with good teeth since 1999, but has also become a go-to presenter for documentaries on art, royalty and antiques among other things.
So was the Antiques Roadshow job something she expected in her career
“No, there’s nothing in my career that I’ve ever expected,” says Bruce from her home in London. “The Antiques Roadshow coming along was not expected and neither was presenting the news. I guess that, in doing the Antiques Roadshow, I had dipped a toe in that kind of area and, to my great delight, the BBC asked me to work on some arts programmes and I’ve enjoyed it.”
Bruce grew up watching the show as a child (for the benefit of the woman at the back, Bruce is still in her 40s) but quickly dismisses any suggestions that, as host, she has somehow become the “star” of the show.
“The stars of the show are the objects, the owners and the experts, and I’m just there to tickle it all along – but I’d never flatter myself that I’m any more important than that,” she says. “It’s always such a pleasure to be asked to work on a programme that you already enjoy watching. It’s not something that happens very often and it’s a real thrill to be part of it.”
However, any illusions that being the presenter of such a prestigious series would give her an advantage upon entering antiques shops were quickly dispelled for Bruce.
“Now, my idea of a great weekend is going to an antiques fair or an auction or wandering around antique shops,” she says.
“I used to think if I walked into an antiques shop I would probably get a bit of a bargain because I might get recognised and the owner might think, ‘Oh, she knows what she’s doing’.
“When I said that to the experts on the Roadshow, they roared with laughter and said, ‘No, it’s exactly the opposite. They’ll be trying to see how much they can get away with when they see you coming’.”
That, perhaps, sums up the world of antiques for many people. In truth, an antique is worth only what people are willing to pay for it – if they know what to look for.
Everyone loves an unexpected discovery of a seemingly ordinary or bizarre item and, before the cameras get to them, everything that arrives at an Antiques Roadshow is filtered through a reception area.
“It’s the first time we get a look at what’s coming along and we can decide which experts get to see it,” explains Bruce.
“We had one item which could have only been a couple of inches square – a red box that a lady bought at a car boot sale for a couple of quid – and it turned out to be Lalique (a famous French designer that can make antique lovers go weak at the knees).
“And it was just hilarious. This woman’s reaction was priceless. She just couldn’t believe it. It was just a tiny little ribboned box and there just don’t happen to be many of them – which, of course, is the key.”
But for every such gem, there are a hundred wishful thinkers desperately hoping that their treasured vase is Ming dynasty and worth a fortune even if it does have Made In China written on the bottom.
Bruce mentions one chap who brought something he was convinced was an antique poison bottle, which he had bought for a considerable sum of money – only to be told it was an olive oil bottle. A second opinion from pottery expert Lars Tharp was more brutally honest: “Tesco’s, circa 2010”.
“It was not a good moment,” says Bruce. But, in its own way, priceless.