Michael Aspel on the Antiques Roadshow, health and his Weybridge life
Weybridge resident Michael Aspel speaks to Matthew Williams about his life in Surrey, what he really thinks of the Antiques Roadshow and how he is in better health than ever
One thing became very obvious to me when I first found out that I would be interviewing Michael Aspel - namely, that everyone has very different recollections of a career that has spanned more than 50 years. Speaking to some, they reminisced on his early work on Come Dancing; others remembered him as a television newsreader and several mentioned his many years hosting Miss World. Oliver Reed's famously incoherent appearance on Aspel & Company and more recent British institutions such as This Is Your Life and the Antiques Roadshow also stood out in many people's minds. I lost count of the number of Crackerjack pencils that people requested.
A national icon
One way or another, it's clear that Aspel, who celebrates his 76th birthday this month, is still seen as something of a national icon. It's interesting, however, that when conversation later turns to impressions - a natural progression from his current voice-over work - the man himself suggests that it's impossible to impersonate him because he's 'far too bland'. Yet for that self-perceived blandness he has managed to leave such an impression on the public, whichever era of his career it is that they happen to remember, that he remains universally well-liked.
Despite suffering heavily from a cold, the Michael Aspel I meet today at Oatlands Park Hotel, just down the road from his Weybridge home, is affable, charming and ever-ready with an anecdote.
"I can't walk into a pub these days without someone saying welcome to the retirement club," he says with a smile, when I ask him about leaving the Antiques Roadshow last year after eight years as a presenter. "Oh, get over it, it's not true. I may have left the Antiques Roadshow but I haven't retired altogether!
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"I had many happy years on the show but it was the right time to go. I was just the presenter, anyway; the experts have the difficult job. Oddly enough, I got a call the other day and they've been looking at Brooklands in Weybridge, so we might see a show from there soon."
He has lived happily in Weybridge for the last 27 years, where he now resides with his partner since the mid-Nineties, Irene Clark. When we meet, he is busy putting the finishing touches to a mini-series for ITV, Evacuees Reunited, in which he tells the stories of ordinary Britons who, as children, were sent to far-flung parts of the country to live with strangers.
"During the programme, I reminded them that I had kept in touch with my old teacher, Audrey Guppy - or Miss Guppy as I knew her then, who taught me when I was evacuated to Somerset for four-and-a-half years," he says. "She was my favourite teacher, a terrific woman. After the war, she went to Australia before coming back to England in the Sixties, when she turned on the TV to find me reading the news. She got in touch and came up to see us filming in Alexandra Palace and we got on very well again. Now she lives in Weybridge, too, and she's 96. It's a small world!"
Life in Weybridge
Brought up in Wandsworth, South London, Aspel gradually worked his way into Elmbridge, first with a home in Claygate and then on into Weybridge. Last year, he received the freedom of the borough, making him only the second person to be honoured in this way - a certain Sir Cliff Richard was the first. In fact, Aspel is such a fixture in the area that he even draws the raffle each year at the Weybridge Society summer party and acts as patron to the group.
"People say that we return to where we were born and I suppose I'm not that far away," he says." I used to come to Walton as a child - a posh friend of mine used to live down here and we worked together at the publishers where I was the tea boy. They lived in a very nice riverside place - in fact, that was probably what attracted me down here, I was so impressed by it."
Passion for film
Other than his time as an evacuee, Aspel's early years were spent as a devotee to the cinema. Indeed, before he'd even considered presenting as a career choice, acting was always at the forefront of his mind, inspired by the films he would go and watch for free in exchange for the posters his mother would put up in the window of their home.
"It's funny; sometimes I wonder how on earth I ended up getting into television news," he says. "It was never anything I had wanted to do; it was more that because of my circumstances, I couldn't say no. So acting kind of got waylaid. I've always thought of myself as a light entertainer or an actor, rather than a serious broadcaster."
Cinema has always been his real passion. He was instrumental in getting a cinema for Walton and his lifelong connection with the silver screen shows no sign of abating yet - although whether modern films are all they are cracked up to be remains open to debate.
"Ideally, I've always sworn that if I had no work to do, I would spend all my time in the cinema," he says. "I'm a cinema nut and have been since I was a boy. But now, sadly, a really good movie doesn't come up that often. There Will Be Blood was absolutely stunning and No Country for Old Men, too. I'm reading the Cormac McCarthy novels at the moment, which are very disturbing - my youngest son put me onto them."
His interest in the theatric has also led to turns as president of the Claygate Dramatic Society and the Hinchley Manor Operatic Society, although he plays down these roles as 'little more than enjoying a few of their productions'. He has also put a 'couple of bob' into the Rose Theatre in Kingston. "Not important money but people will be sitting on my ex-father-in-law's name occasionally. So, if you're sitting on J Power, you're in the family."
In spite of finding fame and fortune, life hasn't always been easy for Aspel; three marriages have broken down over the years, from which he has fathered seven children. He has lived through the deaths of two sons - one died at three days old, after being born prematurely, the other of cancer, aged 30. His son Patrick, who he talks of with great pride, has cerebral palsy and is a student at the Orpheus Centre in Godstone, the residential performing arts centre for young disabled people. On top of that, six years ago, Michael was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, a slow-growing or indolent cancer of the lymphatic system. However, he insists, this is not so much an issue and despite creaking a bit more these days he feels in great shape.
"That was such a load of blown-up old nonsense really," he says, admittedly looking as healthy as any 76-year-old you are likely to meet. "I had to go through every gruesome little test, but what was there was something that had obviously been there forever and was so low grade and unlikely to develop that it was never really an issue. It's been nothing I've ever been aware of and doesn't change things in the slightest. I'm perfectly well, other than the odd cold, of course.
"I still do this strange routine every morning - it was something I saw in a magazine about ten years ago. It's very eccentric and strange and I make sure there's no one around. There's a lot of air skipping with no rope, bending and stretching and then 50 press-ups before hooking my feet under the bed to do 50 sit-ups."
Rowing on the Thames
He's always been active and as a youngster he would row a lot under Hampton Court Bridge, with which he shares the same birth year. He's never been too into playing organised team sport, however, because he's 'not really coordinated enough'. He loves watching the international football and rugby, though, and remembers one time when 1966 World Cup football hero, and hard man, Nobby Stiles came between him and another final.
"I got tickets for the England v Australia Rugby World Cup Final when I was doing This Is Your Life," he explains. "The producer turned round and told me that we were doing a show that day. So, I had to give my tickets away. As England kicked off against Australia, I stepped on to the field at Old Trafford and said, 'Nobby Stiles, this is your life'. If he had said no, I'd have kicked him all round that pitch!"
Rather surprisingly, another slight regret of his life turns out to be that he wishes he had danced more. In his early days on TV, he presented Come Dancing and tells tales of the professionals' 'competitive' nature, which at times would threaten to erupt into something more than formation dancing. He laughs off the suggestion of appearing on its latest incarnation, however.
Stictly Come Dancing
"I have been asked to do Strictly, which was very flattering but I'd probably get slung out after the first performance and the ignominy would be too much," he laughs. "I do, however, often find myself bopping around to the music of whichever movie I happen to be watching. It reminds you of being a kid, having just been to the local palais, where you'd be leaping around all the time. You feel so energised. Shame that I always do it just as it's time for bed!"
Despite his love of fresh air and exercise, he says that it is not a concerted healthy lifestyle effort, more just what he enjoys. At this time of year, with New Year's resolutions floating around, is there anything that he considers relinquishing?
"No, I've never made a New Year's resolution in my life," he says. "I can't think what I'd ask for. I don't smoke, I enjoy drinking and it's usually about that, isn't it, giving up some vice? No, I shall continue to knock back far beyond the recommended daily allowance. God, I heard someone talking about it the other day; you overtake your target with your first slice of toast. So what the hell."
One of his favourite things on the Antiques Roadshow, in fact, was that he could turn up at the filming location a few days after the production team, one of whom happened to have a similar taste for ale and would have already hunted down the best haunts.
"I'm not quite like my brother, who is an absolute pub fanatic, but I wander about and find places I like," he says. "It's difficult to say which is my favourite but the Jolly Farmer in Weybridge is lovely, although the owners are moving on. I do have a tendency to drive landlords out. The Prince of Wales in Oatlands Village is a lovely snug pub and so unexpected, hidden down the back street of the village as it is. When I lived in Claygate, the Foley Arms was a favourite.
Raise a glass
"I do love a pint of bitter. I once got a disgruntled letter from someone sneering at me saying, 'I expect you're a G&T man'. And, while I do like a G&T, certainly, I also like red wine, white wine and a beer every now and then, too. People on a crusade can be so narrow-minded sometimes."
With his birthday coming up this month, it's perhaps the opportune time to raise a glass to the perfect gentleman. Michael Aspel, this is your Surrey life. I've always wanted to say that...
My favourite Surrey
Restaurant: Casa Nova in Virginia Water, which I've only discovered in the last year or so. It's an Italian restaurant staffed entirely by Spaniards, but it's got that welcoming atmosphere and the spacing of the tables tells you that you are going to have a good evening. That's where I have been taking my family.
Shop: I've bought a lot of gear at Establishment in Weybridge
View: The view from my home is lovely. We overlook the broadwater and you look out to parakeets, swans, ducks and a heron. It's quite therapeutic. The parakeets are noisy buggers but the relations love them.
Place to visit: I went up to Walton Firs, the outdoor activity centre in Cobham, with Lady Baden Powell last year and it was great. It was so obvious that so much fun had been had there. I came away really feeling that I'd had a therapeutic experience.
Place to relax: In one of my local pubs. As long as I don't drive the the landlords away that is...
Michael Aspel on Elizabeth Taylor & Frank Sinatra
When asked about the highlight of his career, which took in, amongst others, the Antiques Roadshow, Come Dancing and Miss World...
"Other than today of course," he starts with a smile. "Well, it would have to be the Elizabeth Taylor interview, which was undeniably the best thing. Usually after your chats are over on these sort of shows the guest would leave their seat, leave the studio and leave the building; instantly.
"I expected that to happen with her too, I mean that she should be there, the only person I had ever written a fan letter to in my life was wonderful and the fact that she was such a terrific guest and so ready to have a laugh. It's like Sinatra had that period of his career where he suddenly had this renaissance, he suddenly found his voice again. And with her, she suddenly went from, as she said, being the great white whale to getting it all off and looked beautiful again.
"She was energetic and naughty and rawkas and all that stuff. And at the end, we had our pictures taken at the end of the show and she said: 'is there any lipstick on my teeth'. It all gone well so far, so I thought, why not be a little cheeky and replied 'no, but I wouldn't mind some on mine...'. She just smiled and I thought, oh well, she's going home anyway but she didn't.
"I introduced her to my friends, we all had a drink afterwards and little later, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, that she was glossing up and she came over, grabbed my face and gave me a big kiss. I went a bright hue of magenta. Grabbed a tissue and got a print of the lipstick mark, which I kept. All from someone that I'd sent a fan letter to when I was 14."
When asked whether there was anyone he had hoped to interview but never had a chance to...
"When I did Capital Radio we were very lucky with Richard Attenborough being the chairmanm, so we did get huge international stars and so nearly got Sinatra.
"We were waiting in the studio to find out what the result would be but in the end Sinatra said: 'if I was going to do it for anyone Dickie, it would be you. But I'm not going to do it.'
"That would have been sensational. I haven't seen Dickie for quite a long time but he is exactly as he appears to be, absolutely the loveliest bloke you can imagine."