Date of Birth: 5 March 1943, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire
Birth Name: Michael Hugh Scully
Nicknames: Hugh Scully
Hugh Scully, hosted the Antiques Roadshow for nearly 20 years between 1981 and 2000, bringing to the role a naturally gentle manner that proved a perfect fit for the programme’s traditional Sunday evening slot.
Scully’s unflappable air also commended him for the job of current affairs anchorman, in which capacity he served from 1977 on the early evening news programme Nationwide and its consumer rights offspring Watchdog, launched in 1980, which later became a successful show in its own right.
But Scully’s relaxed style on-screen masked a steely business sense that stood him in good stead when, at key moments in his broadcasting career, he forced himself to make a change of direction. Facing a potentially disastrous drop in income when Nationwide was wound up in 1983, he formed his own production company, and when, in 2000, he finally left the Antiques Roadshow he launched his own internet antiques valuation service, a venture that reportedly made him Britain’s oldest dotcom millionaire.
As well as his television career, Scully had carved out a parallel one on radio presenting the long-running Sunday afternoon series Talking About Antiques. In 1970 this led to a television series with his radio confrère Arthur Negus, Collectors’ World, and in 1981 to the Antiques Roadshow, which in those days attracted an enormous weekly audience of some 15 million viewers.
One of the highlights of Scully’s stewardship of the Roadshow came in Barnstaple, North Devon, when a couple turned up with a painting while out walking their dog. The programme’s picture expert, Peter Nahum, was sure it was a long-lost watercolour by the 19th-century artist Richard Dadd, and sent it to London for a second opinion. Confirmed as Dadd’s Halt in the Desert by Moonlight, the painting was valued at £100,000 and how hangs in the British Museum.
Hugh Scully was born on March 5 1943 at Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, the son of a wing commander in the RAF, also called Hugh but known as Pat because he was Irish. Brought up in Malta and Egypt, where his father was stationed, the 11-year-old Hugh presented a monthly radio show for Boy Scouts on BFBS Radio, an experience that set him thinking about becoming a broadcaster. When he returned to England at the age of 13 he boarded at Prior Park near Bath.
He thought of following his father into the RAF, but failed his interview and at 17 took a job with the Steinway piano company, music having been a particular interest at school, where he had daydreamed of becoming a concert pianist. Sacked for bad time-keeping, Scully next tried his hand as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. But when an aunt left him £500 in her will, he determined to travel the world, in the event getting only as far as Paris, where he fell in with some journalists who spent each evening drinking at a particular café near the Arc de Triomphe. Envying the journalists’ lifestyle, and having soon frittered the money away on horses and high living, he returned to Britain and wrote to every newspaper in the country asking for a job. He received no offers.
In April 1963, and just turned 20, he wrote to the BBC, claiming quite falsely to have worked as a correspondent for the International Herald-Tribune in Paris, and setting out 10 good reasons why he thought they should employ him. By return of post, they invited him to an audition. The result was a two-week spell in Southampton as a newsreader, followed by a freelance contract with the BBC’s newsroom in Plymouth.
His big break came in March 1967 when the oil tanker Torrey Canyon ran aground off the Scilly Isles and started leaking oil. Having had a tip-off from the local stringer, Scully telephoned the BBC’s main newsroom in London and organised a twin-engined aircraft to get a camera crew aloft to film aerial pictures of the disaster.
Promoted a year later to be the frontman of the south-west regional news magazine Spotlight, Scully also began making regular appearances on the national television network through the Nationwide programme when it launched in 1969. In 1977 he moved to London to take over from Michael Barratt as its main anchorman.
Meanwhile, since the age of 24, he had also become a familiar voice as the presenter of Radio 4’s Talking About Antiques, a role he filled by chance after a BBC producer friend, visiting Scully’s Devon home for dinner, found it cheaply but tastefully furnished with antiques and bric-a-brac that Scully and his wife had bought at country auctions. With the furniture expert Arthur Negus already on board, Scully took on the job of demystifying the arcane and esoteric world of antiques for the enthusiastic but untrained listener. Beginning in 1967, Talking About Antiques ran on Sunday afternoons for some 17 years.
Following the demise of Nationwide in 1983, Scully formed his own successful production company, Fine Art Productions, and was executive producer and interviewer on such acclaimed television documentaries as The Falklands War with the British Task Force commander Admiral Sandy Woodward; Thatcher: The Downing Street Years (1993) with Lady Thatcher, and an analysis of the lost “wilderness years” of the Labour Party, pre-1997.
For his Falklands series, Scully remortgaged his house and set off for Argentina where he persuaded the military and members of the Argentine junta to take part. In Washington, DC, he filmed intervews with the former US Secretary of State Al Haig and the American Secretary for Defence Caspar Weinberger.
Commissioned by Channel 4, The Falklands War became an award-winning, four-part series of one-hour documentaries and was shown all over the world.
In 1992 he read that Margaret Thatcher was planning to publish her memoirs, and persuaded her to co-operate with a television tie-in. Waiting for the former prime minister in her Belgravia drawing-room, Scully noticed a collection of Worcester porcelain but when he ventured a conversational ice-breaker on the subject discovered that she had no small talk. “Yes, yes, yes… come and sit down” was all she said before barking: “What do you know about the Franco-Prussian war?” Despite this unpropitious start, Fine Art Productions got the job.
The resulting four-part documentary, Thatcher: The Downing Street Years was broadcast by the BBC to coincide with the publication of her memoirs, and was sold worldwide. It led in turn to a BBC commission to make Labour: The Wilderness Years, as well as a four-part series on the first Gulf War in 1996.
In 2000 Scully finally wearied of life on the Antiques Roadshow and signed a £3 million deal with the online auctioneer QXL.com to host the Hugh Scully’s World of Antiques website.
In retirement he collected 18th-century political cartoons, marine watercolours and an enviable cellar of French burgundies. He also augmented his lifetime’s collection of LPs (he owned 10,000, most of which were in storage) and many thousands of classical music CDs.