This is your new life
Radio Times
21 October 2000
Radio Times: Michael Aspel article Radio Times: Michael Aspel article
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Michael Aspel

a career review

Michael Aspel

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The Big Red Book

the programme's icon

Even a lifetime in the limelight couldn't prepare Michael Aspel when he took to the road for BBC's popular peek into the past.

For a man with 45 years' broadcasting experience tucked beneath his still trim belt, Michael Aspel's admission that he was scared by the prospect of presenting Antiques Roadshow comes as a surprise. "I've never been more nervous about any job in my entire life," he admits. "In the beginning, I was so frightened by what I'd taken on, it was almost incapacitating. I knew this was something too precious to be mucked about with."

After 23 years, the show's former presenter Hugh Scully hung up his microphone at the end of the last series to pursue his business interests. "And they're awfully big shoes to fill," says 67-year-old Aspel. "Hugh has this wonderful magisterial quality and great authority. He brought something to the job that's going to be very difficult to emulate. I don't think I quite possess his gravitas."

As the series advances to its fourth episode - the first of two to be recorded at the Queen Mother's childhood home of Glamis Castle - few viewers will share Aspel's modest appreciation of his own qualities. But then, spend any time with Michael Aspel, and he almost has you believing him.

We're sitting in his meticulously appointed first-floor apartment overlooking a sun-flecked stretch of Surrey water. The man renowned for putting people at ease finds himself in the slightly uncomfortable position of having to answer the questions. He does so with unfailing courtesy and customary dry, self-deprecating wit, but you can't help thinking he'd rather the roles were reversed.

Aspel says his first series of Roadshow has been "nothing but a great pleasure and an extraordinary experience". But then, he was extended the warmest possible welcome by the regular team.

"When you take on the job of presenting such a fine, well established show, you seriously have to ask yourself what you can possibly add to it. In fact, at my very first meeting with them, I said I didn't expect to enhance the show; I just hoped I wouldn't harm it."

The inevitable question he feels people will ask is what does he know about antiques? And the answer, he confesses, is hardly anything. But then, he maintains, that's not necessarily a drawback.

"My role is to show a genuine interest in what's happening around me and to ask, I hope, intelligent questions on behalf of the viewers. As it is, I've bought a number of nice pieces over the years as presents for other people. The few I kept for myself mostly have been stolen in burglaries."

Another part of his role is journalistic. "I have to do my homework before we head off for the next Roadshow destination, and that's proving to be a great joy because it's forced me to acquaint myself with areas of Britain I didn't already know."

"As Hugh warned me before I started, the commitment is in the travel. And he was right. It's a very demanding show in terms of the time it takes to film it. Apart from the production team, I'm the only other constant in the mix." So how does he feel today? "Tired but happy," he says, with a smile.

Part of the joy also derives from the experts. "These are independent, self-assured people. But then that's the mark of an expert, isn't it? Without being arrogant or overbearing, they're always keen to share their knowledge." Came the day when Aspel brought in a photo of a piece of furniture belonging to a friend, "I felt a bit like the new boy tugging his forelock." But he needn't have been concerned. "[Ceramics expert] Paul Atterbury immediately called over some colleagues and they all began discussing it with great enthusiasm. They seemed keen to impart their knowledge and they weren't too proud to ask someone else's opinion. I was enormously flattered and impressed."

These are early days, but already Aspel has witnessed some memorable finds, the best examples not necessarily the highest priced items. In the second programme from Barnstaple there was the man who brought in a Royal Flying Corps watch with a piece of paper revealing its owner to have been one TE Lawrence. "It meant nothing to the Roadshow visitor. Indeed, when the owner's identity was explained to him, the man confessed he thought Lawrence of Arabia was a fictional character, like Biggles." Then there was the woman who turned up with a military bag packed solid with picture postcards - an episode to be shown next year. On the outside, there was a small hole. In the middle of the cards, there was a bullet. The cards had been in her father's backpack during the First World War and had saved his life. "That sort of human story can be very moving," says Aspel.

Roadshow also proved to be something of a nostalgic journey for its new presenter. "Not a week goes by that I don't meet someone who knew me as a child or a young man. In Chard, I met a man who remembered me from when I was evacuated there as a child during the war. Then there have been chaps I knew from doing our National Service together, and friends from the early days of being a television newscaster at Alexandra Palace in the sixties."

And, wherever he goes, cheery members of the public inevitably ask him who he's about to surprise with the famous red book. "Actually, I've already imposed my own rule which forbids me from plundering one show for the other. But oh, wouldn't some of the experts make splendid subjects for This Is Your Life?"

As to his future, Aspel is quite happy, he says to roll with the punches. "I shan't retire. People in this business don't as a rule. On the other hand, I don't suppose I shall write that wonderful novel and it's getting a bit late to break into movies."

But he's not complaining. "I am after all at the helm of two institutions. I count myself a lucky man."

Richard Barber