Josie Campbell spent a day at an English castle, immersing herself in the full Antiques Roadshow experience, including taking some of New Zealand’s finest china to be assessed.
This whole Antiques Roadshow experience is thanks to a momentary flash of brilliance out of nowhere, when I wondered if Antiques Roadshow would be recording while I was in England. I followed it up with some intense research (a quick google) and discovered that that it would be filming two hours outside of London, 36 hours after I was scheduled to arrive. “This is meant to be!” I thought.
The Antiques Roadshow website is delightfully British and invites international visitors to get in touch ahead of their visit. How welcoming! I went a step further and with the help of NZ’s Prime, applied for media accreditation with the BBC and was issued an official ‘blue pass’ with my name on it. I was encouraged to dress for English weather and bring along a couple of things to be assessed.
Fast forward to Roadshow day.
Let me set the scene. It was raining when I woke up 20 minutes away in Canterbury, channeling the antique life in a 15th century cottage. Attending outdoor events in the rain is never great, but I was excited at the prospect of wearing my anorak, like thousands of Roadshow attendees before me. As I don’t own pearls or a twinset, so just wore tidy navy trousers, a demure top and my most sensible sandals, with the anorak on hand in case of a ‘weather event’.
By the time I rolled up to Walmer Castle mid-morning the sun had broken through the clouds and the queue of locals clutching their precious objects was already a couple of hundred metres long, winding through the gardens. There were bags stuffed with china wrapped in newspaper, paintings in brown paper packages tied up with string (I’m not making this up), folding chairs galore and a palpable sense of excitement, hope and goodwill. This didn’t stop me being elbowed out of the way by several tiny grandmothers as the day went on and people got more anxious about getting their moment with the experts.
I had my production pass at the ready, and as soon as I showed it at the entrance, I was escorted to the front of the queue to reception. This is where you show the items you’ve bought – in my case a gaudy cup and saucer from the Crown Lynn brand Kelston Ceramics and my great grandmother’s Tiger Eye brooch, that had traveled all the way from New Zealand in my carry on luggage. The reception lady commented on the beauty of the brooch, so I felt that I was on to a winner. She gave me two tickets – one for ceramics and one for jewellery, so I could go and see an expert (which they call specialists).
The experts sit at large tables under special umbrellas with their area of expertise printed on them. Everything is on brand – the umbrellas, the merchandise stand, the generously sized portaloos and the tea tent. It’s flawless.
Antiques Roadshow is generally filmed on a Thursday, but I’m there on a Sunday. The producers are doing more weekend shoots to attract more youthful audiences and the grounds of Walmer Castle keep filling up with more and more people as the crowd grows into the thousands. There are badges on sale at the merch stand that say “I survived the queue at Antiques Roadshow.”
No queues for me though, I head to the ceramics area, subtly take stock of the experts who are all dressed as I hoped – bright jackets and trousers (not usually the same colour), confidently bold ties and slightly disheveled hair. They look exactly like I imagined Uncle Quentin from The Famous Five would look.
I inform the steward that as Henry Sandon isn’t here today I’d like to see his son John, thanks. Two minutes later I’m seated next to John at the table. He’s lovely. I’m trying to tone down my excitement. You’ll never believe what happened next.
Guys, I didn’t think he was going to tell me my cup and saucer were worth millions, in fact I was hoping that he’d be scathingly dismissive. Instead he gave me a fascinating potted history of NZ ceramic collectable trends and then dropped this bombshell.
Oh please let it happen. In case you were breathlessly waiting to find out the valuation… he reckons my precious cup and saucer are worth a couple of quid. Of course, in the true tradition of Antiques Roadshow hopefuls who discover their treasures are worth nothing let me just say that I could never part with it anyway.
The day was exceeding all my hopes and it wasn’t even lunchtime. I headed over to the refreshment tent for a cool glass of Pimm’s and stocked up on far too much memorabilia at the merchandise stand (staffed by John Sandon’s wife). I experienced that shopping brain explosion that only usually happens when faced with fisherman pants in Asian countries – they’re amazing until you get home. The next day I wondered why I had felt the need to buy two Antiques Roadshow mugs, a beach bag, a notebook and a packet of pencils, but I suppose I can be glad that I didn’t buy one of the aprons, colouring in books or teddy bears.
Next I met up with the show publicist for a quick chat, which turned into a rundown on how everything works and a guided tour of the backstage areas.
There are 90 in the team that are on the ground on the day – I met stewards, security, specialists, saw glamorous host Fiona Bruce chatting to families for a piece to camera.
“This looks like the way to enjoy Antiques Roadshow.” She said, while gracefully hijacking a family’s picnic blanket. “You’ve got a picnic, homemade scones. Have you brought anything for us to see?”
We then went past the crew only signs, through a gate to a big, fairly historic garden shed where technical HQ was stationed for the day.
Engineering Manager Jon Harris explained that there are three live crews filming, with one main setup for the big items which has four cameras being mixed in the shed and an on location director, as well as two roaming crews.
“It’s quite unique this setup. It’s basically what you get in an OB truck, de-rigged style which allows us to get nice and close to the filming.” This is the first season that they’ve moved from the traditional onside broadcast truck setup, and Jon says it’s made a big change. “They very much want the viewers to get the live perspective. It does create a bit more excitement seeing two or three cameras filming one thing. It’s as live, it just gets trimmed off afterwards in the edit.”
There’s sound mixing happening in the shed too, and 48 radios so that everyone knows what’s going on. We exit the shed, which is even warmer than it is outside and probably going to get a bit unpleasant. Jon only says “It does get a bit warm, yes.” He’d also used the word lovely while talking about vision mixing, and it was all too delightfully English for words.
“Would you like to see inside the castle?” Um, YES! It was closed to the public for the day to be used as a backstage area for the specialists and crew, and a waiting area where they give people waiting to be filmed a cup of tea. It’s a small but stunning castle, built as a fortress by Henry VIII. It’s pretty cosy and I wouldn’t mind living there, especially because it overlooks the coast and you can see France on a clear day. Tres bon!
If through some bizarre quirk of fate I did get to live there, I would be following in the steps of historical notables who spent a lot of time at Walmer Castle including Queen Victoria and her hundreds of children, Lady Hester Stanhope (a lady adventurer from the 1700s), and it’s also the place that the Duke of Wellington died. More recent residents included WH Smith (of bookshop fame), Winston Churchill and my birthday twin (not the same year, obvs) the Queen Mother. It’s a little bit surreal and almost spooky for someone from a young country like New Zealand to walk around places where people you’ve only read about in books used to hang out.
There are a whole lot of reasons I’ve loved watching Antiques Roadshow from when I was a little girl. There’s the enjoyable nostalgia of looking at beautiful old things, there’s the eccentric outfits worn by some of the experts and there’s the hope that you’re going to see something extremely valuable uncovered. I was determined to stick around until I experienced a truly epic Antiques Roadshow moment, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I edged my way to a good viewing spot next to one of the big cameras at the main filming area. There was a vintage leather jacket on a stand. The excitement was palpable – who had it belonged to? I was running through rock star names in my head, but no, it wasn’t John Lennon’s, it had belonged to JFK! (GASP!) and had been left behind in France when he had left his lover (GASP!) and gone back to America to be married just a couple of weeks later (GASP!)
But how much was it worth? Well I’m afraid I have promised the BBC not to tell you until the programme screens, but the words “this is an iconic piece” were uttered. Honestly though, if you think Dominic Bowden is the king of the loaded pause, he’s got nothing on these Antiques Roadshow experts who know how to milk every moment for drama. All I’ll say is that I’m pretty sure I hit the jackpot of the most exciting valuation of the day.
I know teasers are annoying, and I’m sorry. Please accept instead my second valuation in full. The publicist introduced me to Jewellery Specialist John Benjamin, I handed over the brooch and without a pause, this happened.
How it works
Producing Antiques Roadshow is a huge undertaking and each filming day is expected to provide enough footage for two programmes. This is the 38th season, of 26 episodes. New episodes of Antiques Roadshow will return to Prime later this year.
Like me, I’m sure all fans of the show want to know how it works with the treasures – what is pre-planned and is it all real?
You can email the BBC if you have a large item that you’d like to consider having them pick up in a van. A couple of days ahead of the roadshow, one of the team visits these people and if they have other smaller items to bring to the roadshow, to start arriving from 7:30am, so that there’s no waiting around when filming begins at 9:30am. Aside from this, anyone can show up on the day with his or her family treasures, and this is how it rolls out.
- The roadshow opens at 9am, but queuing begins hours earlier. People have fold up chairs, packed lunches and parcels of every shape and size. As long as you’re there by 4:30pm it’s guaranteed that you’ll get your items assessed, but filming continues until 9pm.
- At the front of the queue is reception, where you’re given a ticket for each of your items, so that you can then line up to see a specialist at your leisure.
- When you see the specialist, they look at your item and if they think it’s worth filming they fill in a slip and send you to a holding bay, where a producer sees you.
- Next, you get sent to the waiting area (in the castle!), check your item in with security, they give you a cup of tea and let you know what time to visit the hair and makeup room, before you and your potential treasure or fake are reunited at the filming area.
- This is also where there’s an internet station in case the specialists want to do any research before filming – the latest auction prices etc.
- Then there’s the filming, and prior to this the hopeful punter only knows that their item has been deemed ‘interesting’ – they haven’t been told anything about value or history, and it’s all captured on the spot by the cameras. The overjoyed gasps, or stiff upper lip when faced by disappointment, are all real. [Holding area pic/Early Dickens pics options]