On Sunday, BBC One aired a Holocaust Memorial edition of Antiques Roadshow – and host Fiona Bruce insists it was anything but dispiriting.
“People may have thought, ‘Do I want to watch something about Holocaust survivors, wouldn’t that be depressing?’ But actually, it’s so far from depressing,” says the 52-year-old, who took up the Roadshow reins following Michael Aspel’s retirement back in 2008.
“It’s their zest for life and the stories and the triumph of the human spirit; utterly inspiring,” she adds.
Filmed at London’s Foreign Office, the one-off special – which, in collaboration with the UK Holocaust Memorial Foundation, marked Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 – sees Bruce, alongside co-presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, interview dozens of survivors and their relatives, whose stories are told through a range of artefacts from the time.
The collection – including clothing, objects from concentration camps, letters, family jewellery hidden from the Nazis, and sketches by children’s author Judith Kerr – is the first where the experts haven’t concluded with valuations.
“Obviously, it would have been entirely wrong to do so. We would never have wanted to do that,” says Bruce, explaining the decision was down to the priceless nature and historical importance of the relics.
The inside story
Referring to the experience as “humbling, remarkable and inspiring”, the seasoned newsreader says filming the special was “one of the most extraordinary days of my life”.
She recalls a moving encounter with a remarkable lady called Sybil, whose late husband Joe had survived Auschwitz.
“He kept his [uniform] blue striped trousers all his life,” Bruce explains. “He died a number of years ago and she has still got them. I don’t know if you could imagine – I certainly couldn’t until that moment – holding and handling a pair… He’d never washed them – they were exactly as [they were when] he left the camp weighing less than five stone, aged 21.”
Of the encounter, Bruce admits: “I felt a whole array of conflicting emotions: revulsion at what they represented, humbled by what the man who wore them had endured and, in a strange way, rather privileged to hold them and see them, and hear the story that Sybil told about her husband.”
Bruce, who was born in Singapore to an English mother and Scottish father, reveals there was one item she found particularly difficult – a 1938 board game called Jews Out, which sees players roll a dice in order to travel around a board collecting “horrid conical-shaped caricatured Jews”, which are eventually shipped off to Palestine.
“This is made for children!” observes Bruce, who has a teenage son and daughter with husband Nigel Sharrocks. “The corruption of innocents I found so utterly horrifying.”
Another survivor she met while filming had endured the camps as a young girl, losing her whole family apart from her grandmother. She’d brought with her a tiny, flat square of gold – “no thicker than a fingernail” – with a four-leaf clover on one side and her grandmother’s name and a date on the other.
“Her grandmother wanted to give her something for her ninth birthday,” Bruce explains. “And all she had was a gold crown right at the back of her mouth that the Nazis hadn’t spotted. She’s kept it all her life…”
With nearly a decade of Roadshows under her belt, Bruce has witnessed her fair share of surprises atop the experts’ tables – but it’s the series’ never-ending haul of “all spontaneous and entirely unpredictable” treasures that she so loves.
“We’re fortunate we don’t have problems prompting people to bring their [possessions] in, because actually, despite the fact we’re 40 next year – it will be our 40th series and my 10th – people keep coming in their thousands,” she says.
“Thank goodness, because they’re what makes the programme, [and] we still keep finding the most extraordinary things. You think the world would run dry, but it isn’t. It just isn’t.”
She has fond memories of watching the show herself with her parents when she was younger. These days, however, communal viewing at home peaks at Planet Earth and Strictly Come Dancing.
“My kids are not particularly interested in watching anything I’m on,” says Bruce, laughing. “I think if I wasn’t on it, they might maybe [watch Antiques Roadshow], but I don’t know. I am their mum and they don’t want to watch it!”
Having worked in journalism for nearly three decades (Bruce started out as a researcher on BBC’s Panorama, before racking up an impressive CV that includes Crimewatch, Newsnight and Fake Or Fortune?), the seemingly unflappable stalwart is well versed when it comes to juggling a busy workload.
She’s not likely to view her slot on Antiques Roadshow as welcome light relief from what she knows and loves, however – even amid the events of a turbulent 2016.
“Brexit and Trexit, yes!” she quips. “It’s not a relief exactly, I love doing news. Ask any journalist, if you love news, you want more of it, so to work in news in such an extraordinary year has been brilliant.
“I’m not sure the news has been brilliant,” she quickly adds. “I wouldn’t describe it that way, but what a time to work in it. You couldn’t ask for more.”