Antiques Roadshow experts share their memories of The Queen
The late Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the Antiques Roadshow at Hillsborough Castle (Northern Ireland’s royal residence) in 2014 marked a career highlight that lives on in the memories of the three experts who met her
'It was a huge surprise, shrouded by secrecy,’ recalls Paul Atterbury of the first inkling he had that something out of the ordinary was about to happen. A strange phone call from the BBC Antiques Roadshow office had asked if he would be available to travel to Hillsborough a day early. They couldn’t say why, and he was forbidden to discuss this conversation with anyone.
It was only a week before the appointed day when the series director Simon Shaw announced the impending royal visit, and confirmed the three experts – Paul, Hilary Kay and John Axford – who would meet the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh. ‘I will never know why I was picked, but I was very pleased,’ Paul recalls.
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For Hilary, the summons was even more mysterious and overlaid by unexpected stress. She hadn’t planned to join the Hillsborough Roadshow but was asked if she would be prepared to do so. ‘When I asked “Why?” I was told I couldn’t be told. So I thought – blimey, this is pretty weird!’ Having agreed to go and subsequently hearing the full story, Hilary arrived at Belfast airport, the day before the royal audience, only to discover a less welcome surprise. ‘My luggage, with my carefully chosen royal meeting-and-greeting outfit wasn’t there. I kicked up a huge fuss and the operative said, “Anyone would think you’re going to meet the Queen the way you’re carrying on!”’
On the morning of the royal meeting, the three experts briefly viewed the objects that had been selected for discussion, from items in the Royal Collection at Hillsborough. ‘It had been agreed that the press and cameras would be there to film us talking about the objects for about 10 minutes, and then withdraw, so all the photos were taken then,’ recalls Paul.
Hilary vividly remembers the moment the Queen entered. ‘It was a big room, but she filled it. When I shook her hand and curtseyed and looked into her eyes, I felt an extraordinary feeling – as if there was a plutonium power there – you wanted it to be like that and it was.’
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Having been introduced by Fiona Bruce, the experts’ conversation began. Hilary had selected two objects that she hoped would have personal relevance. First, a silver christening cup that was the gift of the Queen’s aunt, Lady Granville, who had lived at Hillsborough, and second, an equestrian bronze of Caractacus, the Derby winner of 1862. The horse famously had several false starts before its win, Hilary explained. ‘Sounds very incompetent,’ remarked the Queen tartly. ‘I don’t know if I’m making this up, but I honestly believe that she knew its sire and mother,’ Hilary says.
When Paul’s turn came, he chose an Aboriginal club and told the couple it had been given to them during their first tour of the Commonwealth. ‘The Duke asked me how I knew. I said, “Sir, it’s on YouTube,” and that caused huge mirth, especially from him!’
John Axford then stepped forward to talk about figures from the famous Meissen monkey band and a Chinese export tureen. ‘The Queen had the most spectacular collection of ceramics, but the Meissen figures were 19th-century versions, and the tureen was a slightly lumpy, fairly crude piece, as the Duke of Edinburgh pointed out. Still, it was a great privilege to be there and great fun. The Queen obviously loved the Roadshow; it was clearly something they watched – not surprisingly. If I were a monarch, I would want to see what my subjects were up to!’
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Paul recalls that when the signal was given and the cameras withdrew, shoulders relaxed and conversation flowed far more freely. ‘It was informal, easy and very enjoyable. Time flew by. Then at a certain point the Queen looked at her watch and said, “Philip, we’re going to be late for the helicopter,” and off they went to visit the set of Game of Thrones. Watching the funeral, I remembered that day, and it made the whole thing more personal. I felt I had something genuine to grieve.’
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