Raj Bisram says he’s lucky. Plucked from his position as a successful antiques dealer and auctioneer in Kent, he has spent the past decade making a name for himself as the charming expert on Four Rooms, Antiques Road Trip, Flog It! and Bargain Hunt. Along the way he’s had memorable turns on Would I Lie To You? And Countdown. “I’m 66 years old but this all started for me when I was 55,” he says of his television career. “It’s been a miracle – a joy.”
Despite his success, Bisram never sought fame. “I was happy running my auction room,” he shrugs. “I used to watch some of the antiques shows and I remember [Channel 4’s] Four Rooms. Normally I’d watch these TV shows, and have some criticisms. But that show was great. Four weeks later, one of the producers called and asked if I would be interested in coming in for a screen test? I’d have said no if it was any other programme.”
Bisram became the first Asian antiques expert on British television, something he’s immensely proud of, though it hasn’t come without its challenges.
“We have this diversity thing now, which isn’t necessarily always good,” he muses. “Some of the other people in the TV world have said ‘he’s only here because he’s dark-skinned.’ That’s wrong, because I have always believed you should only be doing a job on merit. It doesn’t matter who you are, what colour you are. You shouldn’t be doing a job because you tick boxes. It degrades you.”
The world of television isn’t the first place Bisram fought to prove himself. After leaving school in 1973, he joined the Army at 17 years old. “I was a scrawny little Asian boy, I went to the recruiting office and the staff sergeant said ‘you’ve got to be joking’.”
While friends he’d made at Highgate School in North London went on to train as officers at Sandhurst or Welbeck, Bisram wanted to learn to fight. He made it into the Army, eventually becoming a physical training instructor in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers but, “it wasn’t what I expected. I had it hard”, he admits.
“There were no other brown or black people in my regiment. To put it bluntly, I had the crap beaten out of me on numerous occasions. Ignorance is a crazy thing. In those days, the youngsters didn’t know any better. Most had never met a person of colour. We were odd people as far as they were concerned so they treated me that way.
“I felt I had to be better,” Bisram explains. “That’s something I have carried with me. I’ve always had to do everything twice as well as the white guy next to me, to prove myself. I’ve done that in the Army, in antiques, even working as a TV presenter. I know that I have to put in double the effort so no one has an excuse to get rid of me. People will tell you’re treated exactly the same but you’re not really. There are times it gets you down but the Army gave me the confidence to handle it. You dust yourself off and get on with it.”
One of the reasons Bisram enlisted was because the Army was a breeding ground for athletic talent, such as his hero, Kriss Akabusi. “There were a lot of military people in sports, and I thought the Army would be a good start,” he chuckles.
As it turns out, he was right. At 21, Bisram was sent to Bavaria for an army skiing competition. Though he’d never even tried the sport before, instructors quickly pegged him as a natural. “Skiing became the focus of my life. I wanted to be an Olympian and by 21, I felt that I would have had more chance with my connections in that world than in the Army.”
He left the Army and became the road manager of the world aerial stunt team and began to compete professionally. He ended up in Ellmau, Austria. Though he was there to ski, it took weeks before the owner of the ski school would even allow Bisram a chance. “I went to see him every day and he’d tell me to get out of there, then I’d come back the next day until I wore him down,” he explains.
Eventually the ski instructor invited Bisram to come on a training day. “All the way up the mountain, no one spoke to me,” Bisram recalls. “I stayed at the back of the group, but half way down, this guy, an Austrian Olympian, called me to the front of the group. He could see I was talented. We skied the second half of the mountain and it was as if my life had been changed. All those guys welcomed me into their circle.”
After a few years in Ellmau, Bisram was forced to reckon with his potential as an Olympic skier. “I’d had a fantastic time but compared to the world class skiers I was only okay, never in the top hundred,” he admits.
In Ellmau, Bisram met his wife and after they married, the couple decided to settle back in the UK. Moving to Kent, “I had to decide what to do with myself”, says Bisram. That was where his long-held interest in antiques came to the fore. “My wife had a passion for it too and we thought we’d try to make a living. Forty years on, I’m still making a living out of it.”
Bisram had been interested in antiques from his schooldays. He recalls the pawnbrokers he’d pass on his walk to school, seeing items in the window then rushing home to research them, saving up his pocket money to buy pieces and selling them for a profit.
“There’s nothing like making a profit on something to give you a buzz,” he enthuses. “I never thought I’d end up doing it full time but I found antiques gave me as big a buzz as sport.”
The reason for his antiquing passion? “There’s always a story behind every piece,” he explains. “With antiques I could learn something new every second of the day, live until I was 20,000 years old, and I’d still know such a tiny amount. I’ve got the age now where I forget more than I could ever learn.
"There are so many subjects, so much to learn. That thirst for learning is in me and I just find it totally fascinating. Of course in any job you’ll have bad days when you wonder what you’re doing, but you work for yourself, you’re independent, you make your own mistakes – you live by the sword and you die by the sword.”
Though he’s now a big name in the world of antiques on television, Bisram credits his success back to his army days. “My experiences in the Army have formed the basis for a lot of what I do. I wouldn’t be sitting here if I hadn’t been in the Army,” he says.
“Ultimately the Army is about learning to rely on a team, which has been vital for running an auction house, working in television – everything. You respect people, you look after them, they look after you. That’s one thing which has kept me grounded through all the ups and downs.”
That passion for supporting others is one of the reasons Bisram has become an ambassador for Royal British Legion Industries (RBLI) – one of the charities supported by this year’s Telegraph Christmas Appeal.
“On Antiques Road Trip, each episode we do a piece on something happening locally – and I was given the RBLI,” he says. “I’d never heard of them but they showed me round and it really got to me, how good these people were and how brilliantly they helped veterans.”
Bisram “jumped at the opportunity” to sign on as an ambassador. “I never thought I’d be in a position where I could help, so I thought ‘blimey, really?’ I have done lots of work and I want to do more.” A regular visitor to RBLI’s veterans village in Aylesford, Bisram is full of respect for the staff and the veterans working there. “I just think it’s stunning that, if a veteran needs help, RBLI will do everything they can,” he says.
“Ultimately, there shouldn’t be a need for charities like the RBLI – if you’re prepared to fight for your country then the very least your country can do is look after you if you get injured or maimed or whatever it may be,” he says. “They don’t, so it’s up to charities. We have to help. That’s why it’s a privilege to support the RBLI.”
RBLI is one of four charities supported by this year's Telegraph Christmas Charity Appeal. The others are Macmillan Cancer Support, Age UK and Action for Children. To make a donation, please visit telegraph.co.uk/2022appeal or call 0151 284 1927.