Arts

Fiona Bruce hoping for more treasures when the Antiques Roadshow visits Castle Ward

As Fiona Bruce and her team of experts roll into Castle Ward to film the BBC's Antiques Roadshow, the presenter tells Gail Bell why the people behind the 'treasures' are the real stars of the show

Have bike, will travel...Fiona Bruce, presenter of the Antiques Roadshow
Gail Bell

COULD you have a priceless artefact tucked away in your attic? The BBC's Fiona Bruce knows only too well that such treasures are out there – and she'll be hoping to see some of them in person when the Antiques Roadshow returns to Northern Ireland.

The team will be setting up camp at Castle Ward outside Strangford and, as usual, members of the public with their quirky teapots and teaspoons, rare paintings and forgotten clocks will be the stars of the show.

The visit will be Bruce's fifth visit to Northern Ireland with the Roadshow, having previously filmed at the RMS Titanic office in Belfast in 2008, Castle Coole in Co Fermanagh in 2011, Hillsborough in 2014 and at Stormont for 2017's 40th anniversary programme.

"I've been lucky enough to film at four extraordinary locations in Northern Ireland and the Queen and Prince Philip coming to the Roadshow at Hillsborough has to be an all-time series highlight," Bruce reveals.

"They viewed some items from the castle collection, with which the Queen has a particular connection. I was told she enjoys the programme and, afterwards, she asked me when this particular show would be on so she could watch it."

Having first joined the BBC as a researcher for Panorama in 1989 before becoming the face of flagship programmes such as BBC News, Crimewatch and Question Time, the unflappable Ms Bruce recalls a number of "extraordinary items" brought along to previous Roadshows held in the north.

"One that stands out is a Cartier watch which was seen by our jewellery expert, John Benjamin, at Castle Coole," she says.

"The owners had kept it in a garage for 30 years and John described it as "completely clapped out". On his advice, they had it restored by Cartier and brought it along to Hillsborough three years later when John valued it at £40-50k. Their reaction was absolutely priceless."

Witnessing such spontaneous joy, relief and wonder flood the faces of those who bring their items for valuation is what make the Antiques Roadshow a dream job for the presenter who spends much of her free time "poking around" local auctions and antique shops.

"I've always been interested in antiques, but I’ve certainly learnt more about them since being on the Roadshow," she says.

"I have my own collections – paintings – and I collect things called 'samplers' which are Victorian pieces of needlework, usually done by children in a workhouse to show they have a skill which could be used in service, whether stitching household linen or that kind of thing. I think they’re very humble and very beautiful."

Fiona Bruce

Having notched up 12 years working on the Roadshow, the 55 year-old Oxford graduate has collected many memories over the years – but her favourite remains the discovery of an original Van Dyck painting brought along by a "man of the cloth".

"I looked at it – and I was making a programme about Van Dyck at the time – and I thought it had the look of the genuine article," Bruce recalls.

"We had the painting examined and my hunch turned out to be right: it was the real thing and is now being exhibited as a Van Dyck. I can't imagine that will ever happen to me again in my lifetime and it's definitely been a highlight for me."

She has also encountered the more bizarre along with way, notably a man who turned up "not once, but twice" with a foetal membrane dried on to a piece of A4 paper which had belonged to his grandfather.

"It's called a 'caul'," Bruce explains, "and it used to be a talisman against drowning and used to have some value!"

Another time, an enthusiast turned up with a case full of loo chains – "just a small sample of his collection" – but such anomalies aside, the real appeal of the show goes back to her journalistic roots and ability to spot a "good story".

"I'm not an antique expert, so I don't value items on the day, but I do know what makes a good story and how to tell it," Bruce asserts.

"So much of what you see on the Roadshow is about the story behind the item and the story of the owner – our dream combination is great story, great owner and great value.

"Some of the most moving stories stick in my mind, many of which I will never forget. Last summer, we filmed at Erddig, in Wrexham, and I spoke to three former miners who had brought in the pit whistle. This whistle not only signalled the beginning and end of shifts, but it also blew if there was a tragic accident down the pits. Hearing the men talk about the friends they had lost in mining accidents was very emotional."

But, even this consummate professional with her impeccable vowels and ever-ready stream of engaging chatter has limits on what will eventually go out to viewers – good story or not.

A man once presented a glass bottle bought from an antique shop for £1,000, believing it to be of considerable value. Unfortunately, the show's glass expert examined the bottle and delivered his verdict:

"I'm afraid it's an empty olive oil bottle, Tesco, circa 2008. It's worth nothing at all."

Bruce says: "Now, I suppose we could have broadcast that – but it was just too cruel. The guy was devastated. There's a tiny bit of my brain that realises it would have made great television, but it's just not what the show's about."

Even after 42 years, thousands of fans still come along to the Antiques Roadshow's valuation days – and the "most remarkable" objects are still uncovered.

"We never know what is going to turn up and that is the great joy of the programme," the presenter adds.

"We will see everybody who comes along. Whether it’s a £100,000 painting or a £5 cup and saucer, everyone gets an expert opinion on their own piece of treasure."

:: Entry to Antiques Roadshow event at Castle Ward is free and everyone is welcome.

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