During a baking hot July day last year (seems an age ago now) I donned my ‘bronze’ (officially that is the colour but the best description I have heard from equally unimpressed volunteers is ‘cat sick’) English Heritage volunteer polo shirt, itself not that unusual event, but not normally early morning and in the middle of the week. The reason for me taking the day off and going up to Wrest Park in Bedfordshire to spend my day trying to avoid sun stroke was to be one of 40 odd other volunteers assisting with the visit of the BBCs ‘Antiques Roadshow’ to the site to record two programmes for the 2019 series. It was a while ago, but as they have now started to show this series it seemed a good point to share a few things about the experience.
First, it is a slick operation. They have four roving teams of cameras and support crew and they are all linked by the producer – no one argues with her, and if anything needs fixing, she’s the one to call. The BBC team and the experts work incredibly hard. The doors open at around nine thirty in the morning, and officially the day ends at 5pm, but the reality is that they are still going at 7pm – largely due to the BBC promise that anyone who turns up with something to be valued before 5 will be seen before they all pack up. This means that the experts are having to look at items all day with perhaps a thirty-minute break to scoff some BBC lasagne and any points where they must film the parts that will be in the actual programme.
If you have ever wondered how and why some items have been brought for valuation – including the ones that seem very fragile or heavy – the explanation is that the owners have been asked to bring them especially. The issue for the BBC is this; they cannot have the film crews just twiddling their thumbs until something interesting turns up, so for the first few hours of the day they will film with people who have been ‘vetted’ in advance of the main day, who the production team have become aware of through various channels including social media. The experts have been out to see what they have and if it fits what the programme is looking for then they are invited to attend at the start of the day to keep the team busy while they hope that the crowds lining up with their bags and boxes are bringing something to surprise and make up the bulk of the programme. Now, next time you watch, try and guess what was arranged and what really did just turn up on the day!
So how does it work normally? When you arrive whatever you bring is briefly assessed by a couple of general experts and you are assigned to the most relevant specific expert area (or areas, depending on what you have brought with you). You then go and join the queue. And wait. And wait.
When eventually the expert can see your item, 99% of the time they will just give you an assessment, and that will be that. But in a few cases, they will identify the item as something of interest, and (sweetly) they write the details on a piece of paper that then goes into a cardboard box at the control point. The bits of paper are reviewed by the production team regularly and after a little more digging will either release the person who brought the item (who have been effectively in a holding pen) as the item does not fit the programme needs, or agree to film, in which case the person who brought the item is sent off to wait and have make up applied and eventually will be called back to film with the expert – this can take several hours. So, you might argue that while it might be nice to find a lost Van Dyck in the loft it is going to take up the rest of your day. This is why there are four filming teams – in the day they need more than enough material to fill two-hour long programmes, which can be a challenge.
And if there is any doubt about the honesty of someone’s surprise regarding value, that is straight enough – when the expert identifies that the item is of interest they will explain why in very general terms and explicitly not mention value – so to find that Aunty Nora’s china dogs are actually worth thousands is usually genuine.
Next week – how to survive the queues and what do they look for. But I leave you this week with the amusing fact that the Antiques Roadshow office at the BBC is next to the one occupied by ‘Countryfile, and apparently there is a fierce rivalry between the two teams on ratings, which conjures in my mind all sorts of shenanigans where Fiona Bruce tries to sabotage Adam Henson’s tractor. Or maybe it is just me.