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Photo of Michael Aspel

Michael Aspel Makes His Mark

An Interview with the host of ANTIQUES ROADSHOW UK

NOTE: At the time of this interview in 2000, Michael Aspel was in his first year as the show's new host.

ANTIQUES ROADSHOW UK was in town and Michael Aspel's 24-karat charm was making his presence something of a collector's item in itself. As the heirloom-clutching hordes scurried ant-like around the stately setting of The Great Hall of the University of Birmingham, an elderly woman, hair the color of a silver salver, was suddenly galvanized into action.

"There he is," she announced triumphantly, propelling herself with surprising catapult-alacrity out of the crowd and making a beeline for the suave presenter and his autograph. Benign as always, Michael, who takes over the ROADSHOW driving seat occupied by Hugh Scully for 19 years, signed her piece of paper and made time for a chat.

As the ROADSHOW opens its doors for a 23rd series, taking in 20 locations across the UK, the urbane host of This Is Your Life, despite his undisputed professional provenance, confesses: "I'm more nervous about doing this than anything I've ever done before, because it is so prestigious." And he adds self-deprecatingly: "Hugh has this kind of magisterial style and I'm much more lightweight. The only advantage is that I'm older than him and slightly closer to the subject. That's my only card."

After two years' National Service, the professional soldier's son worked in a department store, laid drainpipes and sold advertising before beginning his career as a radio actor with the BBC in Cardiff in 1954. His first role was as a villain in a Children's Hour play. He became BBC Wales's first newsreader in 1957 and went on to become the unflappable, genial host of such programs as Family Favourites, Crackerjack, Aspel And Company, Ask Aspel, Give Us A Clue, Miss World and Come Dancing.

As always, Michael, 67, is sartorially impeccable, his trousers sporting knife-edge creases that could slice through bread. He has, though, found himself in another world, where viewers and their memorabilia, instead of celebrities and their memories, are the stars of the program.

"I'd seen the ROADSHOW, like everybody else, and always admired it. It's a perfect program—it's state of the art, technically, and Hugh did a perfect job. People ask if it's difficult to follow him—it's impossible," he says matter-of-factly.

"When I was introduced to the crew on the first occasion, I told them I didn't expect to enhance it—I'd just try not to damage it! It's like taking over This Is Your Life from Eamonn Andrews—you just open your mouth and hope you sound like yourself. That's all you can possibly do."

People have been probing Michael's personal knowledge of antiques but, he declares: "That has nothing to do with the subject at all. I'm simply presenting the program. What I will learn over the years will be of benefit and interest to me personally but, as far as the program is concerned, I'm the mouthpiece of the viewers as well. If I were to pretend to be an expert, it would upset the genuine article—so I must keep my place," he smiles.

Michael, who was awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1993 for services to broadcasting, found himself warmly welcomed by the existing team on the ROADSHOW, watched by around 11 million antiques aficionados each week. "That's been one of the best things for me," he confides, "the relief of finding they were a friendly group of highly individualistic people and all good company."

He reveals: "I tried to ingratiate myself by getting hold of this very fine book about the first 21 years of the ROADSHOW. I looked in the lists each week to see who was going to be in the team of experts, then I checked up on their details. Right at the beginning I went up to this chap and said: 'You support Chelsea, don't you?' He said he didn't—and I've never got it right since! And, as it's a different team every week, that makes it more difficult."

In addition to the surprises in store for viewers who turn up with a possible treasure trove, Michael himself has been on the receiving end of a couple of jaw-dropping experiences.

"An astounding thing is that, almost every single week, I have met someone from my past," he explains. "I met somebody in Somerset whom I was evacuated with during the War, and hadn't seen since I was 11; I met a man who had been a guest at my cousin's wedding in 1948 and had a photograph of us together; and there was a guy I was in the Army with whom I hadn't seen since 1952, so it's been a voyage of rediscovery as well. Word hadn't reached them all that I was presenting the show, so it was pure serendipity."

Michael, recently voted into the Royal Television Society Hall of Fame for outstanding services to television, describes himself as a generalist in his personal appreciation of antiques. He is, however, partial to pre-Raphaelite paintings, which he describes as wonderful, and glories in Georgian silver.

"But I've always bought things without necessarily learning much about them—the kind of things you'd bring in here to have looked at by an expert."

Sadly, for the present at least, his collecting days are over. "I was burgled quite seriously a couple of times and they took so much good stuff. I was a bit cheesed off about it," he says mildly. "They even robbed the garden last time and took bits of statues.

"In one of the earlier burglaries, the only thing they left was a framed photograph of my son, who had been born prematurely and his tiny hand was around my finger. And I thought, well, at least they've got a bit of decency and sentiment about them. But then I realized it was the only thing that wasn't made of silver—that's why they didn't nick it."

Consequently, any rebuilding of his collection will be a slow process. "I still buy nice pieces but, at the moment, they're presents for other people, so I only collect vicariously."

Out in The Great Hall, a woman was gaping like a goldfish at the news that a piece of pottery which had belonged to her late aunt was, subject to valuation, worth between £50,000 - £100,000 ($75,000 - $150,000).

"It's nice to witness these discoveries at first hand," says Michael with delight. "People's reactions can be surprising but, if you have overwhelming news, I suppose the only thing you can do is just look, because you're stunned."

Stunned was the word for one owner during this series when a collection of 200 walking sticks was estimated to be worth more than £60,000 ($90,000). "I finished that particular show brandishing one of them," says Michael. "It was nice to have a prop because I'd been walking around until then with my arm crooked because there was no Big Red Book in it!"

Michael, a former TV Times and Variety Club Television Personality of the Year, is fascinated by the remarkable human interest stories which emerge, and which he's keen to share.

"At Forde Abbey in Chard, somebody had a little khaki cloth package that was tightly and solidly packed with picture postcards. It was a First World War item and on the outside of this package was a bullet hole. Inside, when you prized the cards open, was the bullet. This woman's father had had it in his backpack during the War and it saved his life. It was a piece of hidden history. It might not have any great value as such, but it's a wonderful story and that's part of the charm of the program."

The stories which make viewers go misty-eyed, or sit up in disbelief are, believes Michael, part of the ROADSHOW's fascination. "It's a history program and a game show and a detective story. It's beautiful to look at, the camera work is wonderful, it's exciting and terribly interesting. It's got the lot and works on so many levels. People come here, not all of them with something, but just to absorb the atmosphere of a show they've watched and loved for so long."

ROADSHOW hopefuls turn out in force—about 1,500 descend on each venue—and they tend to make an early start, queuing from about 7:30am. "You see these shuffling rows of shiny faces, waiting for their turn, so they're very dedicated to the program and desperate to know what it is they've got—so often, they have no idea," says Michael.

He cites the example of a man who walked into one ROADSHOW with an aviator's large watch which would have fitted over a gauntlet. "It was quite valuable," recalls Michael, "but it was even more valuable when they found this piece of paper in the pouch that was made out for repairs to T.E. Shaw (T.E. Lawrence's pseudonym). This guy didn't know that Lawrence of Arabia was a real person—he thought he was like Biggles, just some fictional character—so he learned something that day.

And an item which isn't necessarily beautiful or interesting can be immensely valuable purely because of its rarity and its age."

Michael believes it's a wise move for budding collectors to start early—"as long as they don't become obsessive about it and go beyond their means," he warns. "One of the experts bought his first piece at the age of four, so they did start very young, most of them. They did it out of genuine interest but today's kids are much more materialistic and there's a danger, I suppose, that they might just be out to make dosh."

As a youngster himself, Michael was more of a swapper than a collector. "I was always swapping things that were the rage, so you never kept anything for more than 10 minutes anyway," he remembers. "You swapped it for something better —a comic, or a cap pistol, or whatever. I've still got a few bits that have survived the onslaught but they're not valuable, just pieces that I've had for a long time."

The three-times married father of five adds philosophically: "It's rather sad, isn't it? You look at an object and you think: 'That hasn't changed at all in all the years I've known it—but the hand which is holding it is considerably changed.'"

 

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