By William David Baker
I was so excited. Nothing quite like it had ever happened to me before, and I’d only my gorgeous wife, Cassy, to thank. It was she who downloaded the form from the BBC. It was she who filled in the application. We must have been exactly what they were looking for because a confirmation mail came back pretty quickly, complete with all the arrangements for our appearance on Tim Whatahoot’s show – the mighty and the great “Bargain Buy.”
Cassy and I had both been fans of the programme for years, and we’d often talked about how stupid some of the contestants were. Buying at retail prices to sell at auction was a surefire recipe for disaster. There was no way we were going to fall for that trap. We had a game-plan in mind well before the show was due to be filmed:
One: bargain hard. There had to be profit in it – so buy cheap, sell dear. Yes, we wanted to beat the other team and make more profit than them. But above all, we desperately wanted to win the Gilded Gavel award, given for making a profit on all three items bought, even though the actual prize had been downgraded a while back from a real wooden auctioneer’s gavel to a tin badge each, with a gavel for a motif instead;
Two: small silver, but it had to be English, Scottish at a push, though it wasn’t our strong suit, and definitely no foreign;
Three: a bit of treen, small novelty Items in wood, but no brown wood furniture, the market was still down on it;
Four: definitely no Staffordshire, too many fakes around;
Five: Matchbox toys, but they must be in their original boxes and undamaged;
Six, and last: anything gold that the seller didn’t realise was.
As we finished compiling the game-plan, I found myself quite surprised and not a little shocked at the last item in the list, because love the show and its ilk as much as I do, I’d always felt uncomfortable watching the expert pick up a piece of cracked dirty pottery and offer a quid for it, only to reveal later that he knew all along that it was a unique piece of Clarice Clift worth fifteen thousand. Cassy said I would just have to toughen up.
The show was to be filmed at the County Showground in Staffordshire, where they held massive regular antique fairs. I went online and found a nice B&B, just outside a lovely little village called Tixall, which was just a hop away from the show grounds. We travelled up from London the afternoon before the filming. The owner of the B&B recommended a pub in the tiny village of Salt, nearby, called the Holly Bush Inn, that had won awards for its wine, beer and food. We found it strange that they did not take bookings, but we thought we’d try it anyway. We were not disappointed.
The pub was not so busy when we arrived, but soon became rammed. You could easily see why. We both had green shelled mussels to start. Delicious! Cassy ordered the Greek lamb, which, when it arrived, looked like it might be the whole lamb. I ordered the slow-cooked belly draft from the specials board. They boasted that most of their food was locally sourced, and it was as good as it promised to be, though I had to ask them to replace my slice of belly draft as the jus had soaked in, and ruined the crispness of my crackling. You can’t cut through rubbery crackling, let alone chew it. The offending meat was quickly, and satisfactorily, replaced without fuss.
The wine was as good as any decent London restaurant, and a damned sight cheaper too. We went back to the B&B, bellies full, and merry. Well, Cassy was more merry than me, as I was driving. I was well rewarded later for my sacrifice, and we woke the next morning, refreshed and ready for the competition.
The show’s PA was waiting for us when we arrived at the show grounds. A smart young thing – all clipboard and brightly polished media degree from Swansea. Jenna led us to the coffee bar, where a section had been cordoned off for the exclusive use of the broadcast team. She explained that their usual catering van had let them down, so we’d have to make our own arrangements for lunch but coffee was on the BBC. The crew were already tucking into enormous Staffordshire bacon baps, and all we managed to extract from the crew were muffled nods, as Jenna briefly introduced us. She lead us over to where the show’s two guest antique experts sat. One would be working alongside the Blue team, the other the Reds. Tim and the Director would join us shortly.
One of the experts was the new one, Derek Somebody-or-other. I didn’t rate him. Dozy Derek, I called him. Cassy had something even more cruel for him, but I won’t embarrass her by saying it. Please let it not be him, I thought. The other was Cute Bliss. The lovely Cute Bliss. All I’ll say about Cutie is that it was a good job that neither she nor Cassy knew just how blissful I thought Cutie really was. Let it be her, I thought. Please let it be her.
We all got on rather well. It’s a bit like when golfers get together. They are never short of something to talk about – usually golf, but not always. It was the same with us, though we mostly kept the chat to antiques. I even found myself warming to Dozy Derek. He was, to be fair, very knowledgable, even if you had to drag it from him kicking and screaming. Jenna took a phone call and disappeared for a minute, before returning, bringing with her the opposition, the Brickhouses from Birmingham.
She was built like the proverbial brick latrine. He was contrarily thin and tall, looming over everyone like a Banshee. Talk about chalk and cheese. Jenna introduced us all round, and we sat back down to drink and chat, but chat soon became hard work as the Brickhouses seemed to be a very quiet couple indeed. I became very suspicious straight away. I didn’t believe they were as quiet or as thick as they both seemed. Gamesmanship!
Jenna, who seemed quite unable to sit still for more than a minute, dashed off again, and this time came back laden down with four heavy looking fleece jackets. Horrible, chav things, really. Two blue, two red, the team colours. I snatched the red pair off her. There was no way Cassy would wear blue.
It was a one size fits all jobby and though mine was snug enough, without being stretched, Cassy’s hung around her like a deflated barrage ballon. My heart melted at the disgust in her face, but, bless her, she seemed to quickly shrug off the shock. I think it helped when she looked at what the blue fleeces had done for the poor Brickhouses. I was pleased that Cassy was blessed with good bladder control, as I watched her turn away, pretending to take care of a coughing spasm, but smothering a Cassy belly laugh into her hands.
The Director arrived with Tim Whatahoot, the host of Bargain Buy, and a renowned expert on all things antique. Tim was every bit of what I expected. Immaculately, dapperly dressed, he was like a grown up Rupert the Bear, but with a decent moustache. Affable? I’ll say so. He made everyone feel at ease immediately. I noticed when he looked over his spectacles at Cassie, with his trademark stare, that she blushed heavily and turned her head away. I hoped she still had her bladder well under control, as it looked like she was really being put under some pressure. I asked Tim if he’d enjoyed his ‘Strictly Gone Dancing’ adventure. He thanked me, and said he’d enjoyed every minute of it, except the getting kicked off far too early bit, and the pain in his legs, as they were still giving him some gyp.
The Director was the Director. That’s all I’ll say about her, as I don’t like to talk ill of the dead. Well, that’s the impression I got, with her Goth clothes, and Goth makeup, and Goth-glum attitude. Not very BBC, I thought, till I realised I was being a bit of a prat. Still didn’t like her though. She clicked her fingers at Jenna, which endeared the Director even less to me. ‘Faces.’ One word. That’s all she said. I’m sure I heard Jenna say ‘bitch’ as she dragged out this small shiny steel box from underneath our table. She proceeded to dab sweet powder on our shiny noses. After telling us what was to happen next, the Director called over to Derek, and informed him he was going to the blue team. I gave an invisible punch in the air.
We went into the nearest hall, which was vast, and the crew set up some of their equipment: a camera, a microphone boom, and a monitor. We stood in front of a stall specialising in delicious oily blue Moorcroft pottery. Tim introduced us to the camera, and asked his questions. Cassy told him how she ran her own training business specialising in improving customer relations in companies where they fell short in that vital area. He was fascinated to hear about her five charity parachute jumps, and her love of treen. He then turned to me.
I told him about the books I’d written, but I don’t think he’d either read them or heard about them, let alone me, the proud author. He was more interested to hear about my collection of Star Wars figures, and my Charles Horner silver hat pins going back to 1900. The pins not the Star Wars figures. He gave us our folded three hundred pounds, with a reminder that we had just one hour in which to buy our three antiques, and then he sent us off with his blessing to go and find out who our expert help was to be, though that, of course, we already knew. We actually moved just a few feet out of shot, while he did the same introduction for the blues. I can’t tell you a thing about the Brickhouses, as I was so excited I didn’t listen. Then the whole team went off to start filming the rest of the show. The camera crew, and equipment, was divided between the blue and red teams. Dozy Derek led the blues away, and we went with Cutie, our crew following close behind.
We followed the script and they filmed the brief hello to Cutie, like we’d never met before. We then started the serious business of rummaging around the stalls. I asked Cutie who was looking after the stopwatch. She laughed, and told me not to be so silly. They’d only once staged a ‘run out of time’ situation and were bombarded with so many complaints about it immediately afterwards that the idea was dropped. The viewers felt that ‘BB’ wasn’t that sort of competition. Competitive yes. But not punitive. In Tim’s closing script, yet to be filmed, he had recently begun to say that the show no longer had losers or winners, first or second places, though clearly they did really, unless there was a very rare draw. It’s an indictment on these PC times, I suppose. Anyway, Cutie said we could have as much time as we wanted, but the crew was booked for only two more hours, so we couldn’t dawdle.
Cassy went right at it. She headed straight for a stall full of treen. She picked up a corkscrew bottle opener with a oversized but nice-looking wooden handle. Cassy told me it was Edwardian. Brazilian Rosewood. Telltale black spiderweb streaks in it. A protected wood now. She called Cutie over, and asked her what she thought about the item. Cutie told her to hang on as the crew were not quite ready. With the crew soon ready, Cassy again called Cutie over, and asked her what she thought about the item. Cassy was very good the second time. She was really getting the hang of being in front of the camera. Cutie liked the corkscrew as it appealed to two markets, the treen collector, and the corkscrew collector, and asked how much the stall-holder was asking for it. Cassy said he wanted seventy pounds, and they both agreed that was too much for taking to auction, if we were to make a profit out if it. After a bit of haggling, we got the owner to agree to fifty, his bottom line, no less. The game-plan was going exactly to plan.
It was my turn next. Cutie remembered how I liked silver, and she sent me over to a stall where the counters were covered with shallow glass cabinets. I spotted the hat pins straight away. Six of them in a tatty tin box. Silver. Charles Horner. I didn’t use my loupe to check the hallmarks. Didn’t need to, and I didn’t want to give the game away either. I asked how much and the owner told me gruffly he’d got better stuff than that rubbish for me to look at. I couldn’t believe my luck. He didn’t know what he’d got. I walked off with all six for a tenner. I was shaking, but had no regrets. No conscience. Cassy’s pep talk had done the trick. Not only was Cutie impressed, which puffed me up quite a bit, but the crew, too, who whistled their knowledgable acknowledgment of my good buy. We had one item left to find, and 240 pounds to spend. We were looking like winners all round.
Cutie called us to a large stall that we had seen earlier, but ignored as it was full of brown wood, the large stuff. She waxed lyrical over this whacking great lump of a tallboy. With camera rolling, we had the lot from her: The patina. The inlay. The veneer. The original handles. The hand made dovetail joints. The bun feet. Yadda, yadda , yadda. I couldn’t see it really, despite what Cutie said, and, anyway, they were asking three hundred for it. Cutie said she thought she could get them down to two. I hated to disappoint her, but I put my foot down, and said no. She turned to the crew, and did the fingers across the throat thing that told them to stop recording. Or it might have been my throat she was thinking about. I still loved her. We then had words, and some of them I hadn’t heard Cutie say on TV – ever. I got the gist that she was disappointed that I’d been so adamant that she was wrong and I was right, even though she was the expert, and I was not. Then Cassy joined in and backed Cutie up, which calmed things down a little. We carried on looking.
Now I know in my game-plan that I’d said no to Staffordshire, but the next stall had lots of interesting pots and figurines, and I somehow found myself drawn to it. I picked up this small figurine of an elephant. It was badly chipped and grimy, and didn’t look much like an elephant at all, except if you’d never seen one before, and you were just making one from someone else’s description of an elephant, and they’d never seen one before, either. Naive, Cutie called it. It was probably old, but not that old, she insisted. She also strongly suspected it might be a Chinese fake, which you could tell because they were often either too brightly coloured or too dull. This had a nice enough palette to it, but was a bit on the dull side, I had to admit. Anyway, Cutie insisted the damage made it a no-no. I knew I could get the figurine for under twenty pounds, and with two good buys in the bag, I dug my heels in, especially when the stall holder said nine would do it. I whispered to Cutie, off camera, that it would leave her enough to buy the tallboy for her bonus expert buy. She smiled at me conspiratorially, and whispered back that it would also mean we could have an early finish, get a coffee, and put our feet up.
So, our buying was done. We just had the expert buy reveal to tape, so Tim was summoned to do his bit. Cutie was filmed running off with the money we had left over, ostensibly to go buy a secret expert bonus buy item, which was really the already bought tallboy, which now stood just off camera. They stopped filming while two porters bought the tallboy into shot then covered it in a shiny red cloth. The cameras rolled again, and Tim asked Cutie to reveal her buy and how much she had paid for it, Cutie waxed lyrical over the tallboyagain, and said there was a definite profit in it. Tim reminded us that we didn’t have to make up our mind to use the bonus buy till the day of the auction, and then only after our three items had been sold. We might need it, if we were down, we might not if we were already in profit. He then said we’d cut over to the auction to let the viewers see what the auctioneer thought about the tallboy. That next bit would be filmed later and spliced in. And that was about it. The auction was arranged for the week after. Usually they tried to record the whole show all in one day, but Tim was still struggling with his leg pains from ‘Strictly,’ and he asked the Director to postpone, and also for a London auction house to be used for greater convenience. Ever the gentleman, he asked, and did not demand.
After we returned home, I could not get the elephant figurine out of my mind. The more I thought about it, the more agitated I became. I talked to Cassy, and told her I was convinced it wasn’t a fake. We did some research online. We discovered that Chinese Staffordshire forgeries are usually made of porcelain. I was sure the figure was pottery, just as a genuine one would be. Cassy asked me if I’d noticed any thick blue blotches on the back of it. I had, or thought I had, anyway. Another good sign she said. And it was moulded in two pieces, I remembered feeling the join – that’s a sign of age we found too. It seems that newer ones were slip cast in one piece.
Cassy asked me how much it might be worth if it was genuine. I thought about about a grand, but that might be me being conservative. I told her I wasn’t bothered about the money, but it would be good to be proved right. Nice thing to own too, if it was pukka. Classy said I should give the auction house a ring, check their website, and get a catalogue to see what they were saying about it, just out of curiosity if nothing else. I did all three and they hadn’t budged from their initial assessment of a porcelain figure, modern copy of a Staffordshire, some damage, estimate twenty to thirty pounds. We looked at each other and just shrugged. Ah well, we’ll see soon enough I told Cassy.
The day before the auction, Cassy’s best friend, Jill, paid us a visit. She had two matinee tickets for ‘Les Mis,’ and Cassy had agreed to go with her. Cassy was still humming ‘Bring Him Home’ as she came back in to the apartment a few hours later. She wasn’t carrying a bad tune either, and her deep contralto gave the song an interesting slant. I was just putting the phone down. She asked who I was calling, as she put her arms around me and gave me a big wet peck on the back of my neck. I could sense she and Jill must have really enjoyed the show’s intermission. I’m very sensitive like that. Cassy was in at least a half bottle of Riocha kind of mood. I told her I’d been talking to my Uncle Frank, which was quite true. She asked how he was, and I told her he was well again, which was also quite true. When she asked if we’d had anything interesting to talk about I told her a little white lie when I said just the usual old usual old, and we left it at that.
The auction house was near to where we lived, so to make a day of it I arranged for a taxi to pick us up the next morning. Jenna, efficient as ever, was waiting for us outside the auction house when we arrived. The Brickhouses had been on already and done their stint, and Jenna said we’d all meet up after our session to finish off the usual storyboard: the results, the farewell ‘New York, New York’ dance, if Tim could manage it, With his leg pain. Jenna told us we hadn’t much to worry about as any plus would beat the Brickhouses nicely. We weren’t supposed to know really, but I think Jenna had taken a shine to us. We took our positions with Cutie and Tim at the back of the auction rooms. Tim was actually feeling much better, having rested his leg. Our first item went up for sale – my hat pins. They quickly made ninety five pounds, which I was a little disappointed with, but we were eighty five pounds in profit after just one item, so Tim told me to buck up and smile.
Cassy’s corkscrew came up next and swiftly ratcheted up to forty pounds, then seemed to stick. That wasn’t good enough. I gave Cassy one of my old-fashioned looks, and she shrugged, but we didn’t need to worry as the bidders soon found their second wind, and it went quickly for eighty. A profit of thirty pounds. I couldn’t help but laugh. Two items down. Both in profit. £115 in the bank, and I knew we couldn’t lose now. I had the Gilded Gavels flashing in front of my eyes.
The auctioneer spoke again, and described our last item next, the ‘quotes Staffordshire end quotes’ porcelain elephant figurine. My heart almost stopped for a minute, and certainly until he’d completely finished his description. He hadn’t changed a word from his original valuation description, and was quite snotty about the figurine really, questioning its right to be there in his auction.
My breathing returned to something like normal. He paused, then flicked through his papers, looking suddenly very puzzled. An assistant called to him and waved her mobile phone. He cleared his throat. He told the room that he wasn’t sure what the hell was going on, that maybe some people thought they knew more than he did, but doubted it very much, but that he had an absent bidder who’d left a bid on the books for the elephant, and, it seemed, there was a telephone booked too. The room went quiet. Tim looked quizzically at Cutie, and asked her if they’d missed something. She hoped not, but everyone was suddenly tense. I should have been as happy as Larry, but my guts felt like they were trying to do a runner.
The auctioneer said he’d have to start the bidding at . . . Well, two hundred pounds. We’d done it! We had the Gilded Gavels in the bag. There was a gasp. I think it came from me, but in five seconds it had echoed once around the room. The phone assistant gesticulated wildly. Two-fifty on the phone, the auctioneer announced, then told us he’d got three hundred in the book to top the telephone bid. Three hundred had it. I started to sweat, really sweat. She signalled him back. Three-fifty! He had four. Four hundred pounds was with him. I heard someone muttering Oh my God, Oh my God. It was me. She signalled again, even more vigorously. Five hundred on the phone! He had six. I was about to faint. I could feel blood pounding in both of my temples. The room started to spin. The assistant took her phone from her ear, and shook it, but this time she looked worried, as if she’d lost the line. She shook it again. The auctioneer said that if there were no further offers he’d have to let the figurine go to the absentee bidder at six hundred pounds. The room was as quiet as outer space, but slowly a murmur began to move through it.
Jill, Cassy’s best friend, suddenly appeared, pushing her way through the crowd. She rounded on Cassy. Tim was in a state of shock. I don’t think there had ever been an attack on one of his set pieces before. Jill had her mobile in her hand. She was frantic and kept shouting Cassy, Cassy. Then she blurted it out to Cassy, as if she hadn’t even seen the camera, or Tim, or any of it.
She didn’t know what to do. She had gone over Cassy’s limit already. Should she carry on bidding? I thought Tim was going to explode. He threw his prompt cards up in the air, said a few choice words, and a To think I used to do ‘Antiques Roadshow,’ followed by a quick Bugger this for a lark, I’m orft, before legging it very quickly off camera, with absolutely no sign of leg ache at all.
The lovely Cutie Bliss looked distraught and I felt terrible for her, watching her run after Tim, sobbing. I hissed at Cassy and asked her what the hell she was playing at. She was close to tears. Jill was in tears. I couldn’t for the life of me understand what on earth had made her think it was a good idea to use Jill as a stooge, but it turned out later that, in fairness, Jill had never seen the programme, and hadn’t really known the wider implications of what she was asked to do.
The Director came frogmarching over, steam coming from her every visible orifice, screaming at the camera to cut, cut, cut, but the camera operator kept filming. I think he probably had a ready market for one of the greatest TV bloopers ever.
I grabbed Cassy by the hand, then thought of Jill, and grabbed her too, and I dragged them both behind me at speed, not stopping until we reached a nice looking pub just around the corner. I sat them down in a quiet corner and went to the bar. I came back a few moments later with a bottle of wine and three large glasses. I emptied the wine between the three of us, then sat down to join them. We each took a long drink, before I broke the silence. I asked Cassy again what the hell she thought she was playing at, and why she hadn’t told me what she was planning to do. She blubbered a lot, and I couldn’t make out every word, but it seemed that not only did she want us to with the competition, and the Gilded Gavels, but she also wanted me to have the figurine too.
What could I do? What could I say?
Then I told her about the bid left on the auctioneer’s books. It was mine. I’d placed it in Uncle Frank’s name. He’d been a party to it. We stared at each other for a minute, then burst out laughing. Jill kept asking what was funny, saying she didn’t understand. That just made us laugh even more.
But, you know, there’s a universal law that can never be broken. It goes something like: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Not sure if I can agree with the equal part though, as, not long afterwards, things all got more than a bit out of hand.
It started a week later, when this thick, signed-for letter arrived from the BBC. It contained a number of things.
There was a letter from the show Director telling us that once the BBC accountants had finished their calculations, we would be getting a bill for the cost of lost production for two days of shooting; it would run to thousands, she warned.
There was letter from the BBC’s solicitors, attached to a court order, informing us that we would be in contempt of court if we came closer than seventy five yards to any BBC building or broadcast activity again – ever.
There was a bill from the auction house for £600, with a note telling us that they had planned to ask me to pick up my purchase, but that unfortunately the elephant had been crushed in a terrible accident with a fallen tallboy, but that their insurance company had reimbursed the BBC for both items as, technically, the insurance was registered in their name.
There was a little note from Jenna, who must have had last hands on the post, thanking us for the laugh of a lifetime. Oh, and two tin badges dropped out of the envelope too.