Interview: Fiona Bruce - Voyage of Discovery

FOR Fiona Bruce, the programme's immaculately cool, calm and collected presenter for the past year, it is the uncertainty factor that makes Antiques Roadshow a delight to be involved in. But, she adds, as the programme prepares to record at Hopetoun House, South Queensferry, tomorrow, it also provides her with a counterbalance to the all-too-often grim realities of newsreading.

"The joy of the Roadshow is that all human life is there," says Bruce, who juggles the widely popular show, now in its 32nd series, with her high-profile role as anchorwoman on the BBC's News at Ten. And if you do get some real oddities turning up, she says, "That's the joy of it. You just never know what you're going to see."

The show's cheerful melange of arts and crafts, county show and circus of great British eccentrics habitually throws up intriguing artefacts, valuable or otherwise. Last year when Bruce and the team visited Dumfries House in Ayrshire, a woman blithely handed one of its resident experts, Eric Knowles, a vase she'd bought in a car boot sale for a pound because she liked the plant that was in it. A somewhat gobsmacked Knowles pronounced it to be a 1929 Lalique vase, which later sold at Christie's for 32,450.

Also at Dumfries House, two local teenagers gleefully presented Bruce with a Victorian ram's head snuff box, complete with lucky rabbit's feet dangling from its horns. "It was the most grisly thing, but it's great to see stuff like that," she says.

Moving into the realms of the curiouser and curiouser, Bruce, who will record an interlude for the show from the top of the Forth Bridge, recalls an item brought to a show in north Wales that was, literally, quite shocking: "It was a machine this chap's father had used, something medical, and it had two prongs sticking up and they gave you an electric shock. You could turn it up and give yourself stronger and stronger shocks, depending on how robust you were feeling.

"He said they used to bring it out after dinner. It certainly made me wonder what they got up to on the long, dark nights in Conwy."

Sometimes it is the people as much as the motley treasures they bring who provide the interest. Previous shows included two women who collected Starsky and Hutch memorabilia and arrived sporting a Hutch jacket and a heavy-knitted Starsky cardigan. Even the show's resident buffs can have their little eccentricities – art specialist Paul Atterbury claims to have been a model for Andy Pandy (his mother was a puppeteer on the children's show).

In a career which has largely involved fronting hard news programmes, Bruce, 44, says AR does provide a degree of light relief. "I did present an antiques show about ten years ago for BBC2, and that was reasonably light, but otherwise it's all been news and current affairs, so doing AR is a wonderful counterpoint to that."

And when the Roadshow circus hits town, she adds, it really is quite a business: "There's not many places you go where you're with an enormous BBC outside broadcast unit, with miles of cable and loads of lights. I think we had 3,500 people at it last week in Lincoln, and remember that you've got to look after all these people, provide security, the whole caboodle. There's just nothing like it."

But if the show can throw up some intriguing historical objects, Bruce, who was born in Singapore, also found out some interesting facts after recently investigating her own family history – and her largely Scots ancestry – by going through the genealogical hoops of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?. Bruce's Scots father is a classic self-made man, who worked his way from post boy to become a managing director with Unilever, and she can recall visiting the fishing village of Hopeman, between Burghhead and Lossiemouth on the Moray coast, for her grandfather's funeral. "I was only ten, but I can remember that quite a few people had my father's colouring, dark hair and light blue eyes." She laughs: "People talk about my eyebrows, but quite a few people there had fairly prominent eyebrows."

At the start of Who Do You Think You Are?, Bruce remarked: "What would be great would be if we get some great character, or some mass murderer or a stripper or something extraordinary." What in fact she unearthed included insight into the First World War death of her great-grandfather, Frederick Crouch. The family yarn was that he was the only one of a group of officers at Passchendaele not to duck as shells started falling – but the research also revealed that he had previously been invalided home for nine months with shell shock.

"Why didn't he duck? We'll probably never know," muses Bruce, "but he was in the artillery so he was probably pretty deaf and perhaps he just didn't hear it. But he served at Ypres and the Somme, was sent home for nine months and then back to Ypres. People like us just can't imagine it."

She also discovered that Fred's father, William Crouch, had been a portrait photographer, with premises at such fashionable London addresses as Bond Street and Regent Street, but was tried for fraud in 1904 and sentenced to five months, dying in Edinburgh three years later.

Among her Moray fisherfolk forebears, she found that a great-great-great uncle, who had appeared to have vanished from the 1881 census, had died in the poorhouse, recorded as "a pauper" and "a poor drunken creature".

On this occasion, it was perhaps her other life in current affairs that provided a counterbalance, preventing her from becoming as visibly emotional as some other WDYTYA? subjects, as her newsroom at the time was receiving appalling pictures from natural disasters in Burma and China. "But it did give me a real insight in to just how tough (her forebears'] lives were and how little there often was between them and destitution. It was heartbreaking, and in that sense it made me feel incredibly fortunate."

Bruce has two children with her husband, businessman Nigel Sharrocks. She began presenting Antiques Roadshow a year ago, replacing Michael Aspel. Asked if she found the veteran broadcaster a hard act to follow she responds slightly wearily: "When I started doing the news I was following on from Martin Lewis and Anna Ford; when I moved to the News at Ten I was following on from Peter Sissons and Michael Buerk; when I went to Crimewatch I was following Jill Dando…

"Michael Aspel was terrific on the Roadshow, and certainly a hard act to follow, but that's been the case with pretty much everything I do."

As to suggestions that she was brought into AR to introduce an element of glamour perhaps missing from such previous esteemed incumbents as Hugh Scully and Arthur Negus, she counters: "I'm a middle-aged mother of two, so the idea of being brought in to 'sex up' any show … Chance would be a fine thing, I say."

Asked if she might match Hugh Scully's record of presenting the show for 19 years, she sounds slightly incredulous at the very thought: "I don't think that far ahead to be honest. Nothing in my career has been planned. Enjoy it while it lasts, then see what comes out of it all."

&#149 Entry to the Antiques Roadshow at Hopetoun House, South Queensferry, tomorrow is free, between 9:30am and 4:30pm. The show will also be recording at Abbotsford, near Melrose, on 2 July.

&#149 For further information on the show, log on to: www.bbc.co.uk/showsandtours/beonashow/antiques.shtml