From puppeteer’s son to TV authority: one of the nation’s favourite experts talks antiques, art, and Andy Pandy
Paul Atterbury is a writer, lecturer, curator, historian and broadcaster. He’s also a familiar face to the nation simply as one of the Antiques Roadshow experts (specialising in 19th and 20th century Art and Design).
Now living in Weymouth, Paul and his wife Chrissie moved to Dorset, near Bridport, in the early 1990s – Paul was born in London. His mother was puppeteer Audrey Atterbury, known for her work in the 1950s on the BBC’s Watch With Mother programmes such as Andy Pandy, Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men and The Woodentops.
‘I was the model for Andy Pandy,’ says Paul. ‘The craftsman who made the Andy Pandy puppet based it on five-year old me!’
Trained initially as a graphic designer, Paul later studied art history and then worked for Sotheby Publications, first as historical advisor for Royal Doulton and then as editor of Connoisseur magazine. His television career started in the early 1980s on Thames Television’s Afternoon Plus and TV-AM. Ten years later he was invited to join the nations favourite team of experts on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. He’s usually found in the miscellaneous section, which gives him the opportunity to explore the antiques and collectables of the 19th and 20th centuries, his personal passion. He has taken part in more than a hundred Roadshows and has also appeared regularly on the Great Antiques Hunt, The Antiques Show and on Hidden Treasures on BBC Radio Four.
‘Appearing on the Antiques Roadshow is an important and enjoyable part of my life. It appeals to me because I like meeting people and hearing their stories. Even though the Roadshow days are long and tiring, they are always exciting. Each item is a new challenge and a voyage after the unknown. There will be a team of 20 of us on duty, and collectively we’ll see between 10,000 and 15,000 objects in the course of that day, of which 50 will be filmed.’
It is the story behind each item that keeps Paul excited and interested through the long days, rather than the prospect of a highly valuable item: ‘One of my favourite encounters was quite a long time ago – we went to Belfast and I saw some photographs brought in by two ladies who were the direct descendants of the two girls who foxed the world with fairy photographs in 1917. The ladies were the daughter and granddaughter of one of those girls – they had the camera that had been used and the photographs. It was a story I knew very well but to actually touch it was wonderful.’
Outside of his TV work, Paul has curated many exhibitions for museums and galleries, including several for the V&A in London. He has also written or edited more than 50 books on art, antiques, ceramics, silver, sculpture, canals, railways, travel and World War I. He has also recently published a couple of books on Eype and West Bay, as seen through old postcards. Paul gives more than 100 different lectures around the UK each year, specialising in 19th- and 20th-century art and design.
In 2014, with author Janet Gleeson he started the Dorchester Literary Festival, which he still organises ‘with the aim of giving book lovers the opportunity to hear stimulating talks and discussions by leading authors.’
- What’s your relationship with Dorset?
Dorset is where I live and where I always want to be. I am, of course, a blow-in – I came to the county from London in the late 1980s but my wife grew up here, so I think I can claim residency? I certainly have no real roots anywhere else.
- The last film you watched?
Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill. I don’t watch much TV but one evening recently my wife found this, knowing it would keep me quiet for a bit. She was right!
For me, classic films are so much better than most things made today, despite all the technology. The last film I actually saw in a cinema was 1917.
- What would you like to tell 15 year-old you?
Just say yes – and just do it!
It will go wrong sometimes, but mostly it will be exciting and there will be lots of memories to enjoy later.
- The best flavour of crisps?
Plain! Salt and black pepper are OK, and I’ll accept salt and vinegar if there is nothing else. All other flavours range from disappointing to disgusting.
- What was the last song you sang out loud in the car?
I Saw Her Standing There.
My brain is filled with the lyrics of 1960s songs – some in bits, some complete. This one has been complete since I had the Beatles first LP and saw them perform it live in 1963.
- What book did you read last year that stayed with you? What made you love it?
Encounters with Artists by Richard Cork, the famous art critic. He describes his meetings with a number of great modern artists, from Picasso, Henry Moore, Francis Bacon through to Damien Hirst and co from the 1990s, via great Americans and Europeans. It is exciting and hard to put down.
- The best biscuit for dunking?
I don’t eat biscuits, so I don’t dunk. However … I do like the Australian take on this. Get a Timtam biscuit (a sort of chocolate coated wafer thing) and dunk it in Baileys. The wafer melts and you suck up the Baileys through what becomes a chocolate straw.
And if you don’t like Baileys, other strong drinks also work!
- Tell us about one of the best evenings you’ve had?
Watching the Rolling Stones at the Rod Laver stadium in Melbourne on 25th February 2003, celebrating my wife’s 50th.
- Your favourite quote?
I haven’t really got one.
However, when I was a student in Italy I found a great one which roughly translated as: ‘He who lives in hope dies in the lavatory.’
- It’s Friday night – you have the house to yourself, and no work is allowed. What are you going to do?
I’ll have a malt whisky, rummage up something to eat and listen to some 1920s and 1930s jazz – a passion since my teens.
- What’s your most annoying trait?
I asked my wife but she couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me. I do have many passions and interests, so we have a lot of stuff, reflecting all the enthusiasms I have – or have had. I’m glad it wont be me that has to clear the house!
- Top three most visited websites?
• Google/Wikipedia – I am insatiably curious and always looking things up
• The weather; I like to go walking
• The FA Championship (so I can follow the very erratic progress of Norwich City).
- Chip Shop Chips or Home Baked Cake?
Home baked cake – especially those made by my wife.
- Cats or dogs?
We have had both, and are now happy with neither. If I had to choose, it would be a rescue dog.
- What’s your secret superpower?
I am blessed with a very good memory. I can describe in detail things that happened both ages ago and last week. It’s an enormous asset for working on the Antiques Roadshow!
- What in life is frankly a mystery to you?
Why does anyone pay hundreds of pounds for what is essentially a pair of gym shoes?
- What is your comfort meal?
Curry. Almost any curry! I’d happily eat Indian and Asian food every night (but no Chinese thank you).
- What shop can you not pass by without going in?
No surprise here – any antique or second hand shop. Even charity shops are hard to resist. I rarely buy anything new!
- You have the power to pass one law, uncontested. What will you do with it?
I will impose an immediate and substantial tax on sugar, with health warnings on the packaging of all food and drink with a high or unnecessary sugar content.