Martin Roberts on his TV career, home repairs and haunted houses

Homes Under the Hammer’s Martin Roberts chats about filming the show and how a slice of lemon meringue pie changed his life...

Martin-Roberts

by Alison James |

Martin Roberts’ favourite pudding is lemon meringue pie. But not because he’s particularly partial to the classic dessert. The simple fact is that it’s due to a slice of pie that he got to be on TV in the first place.

“It seriously was,” he laughs. “I was working in local radio at BBC Manchester and we shared an office block with BBC TV. I went up to the cafeteria one day for lunch and while queuing up, my attention was caught by this slice of lemon meringue pie. It was bright, phosphorescent yellow and looked radioactive!

“I had a laugh about it with the guy standing next to me. He asked me what I did and when I told him he said, ‘Have you ever considered television – I think you’d be good’. He then told me to give him a call if I was interested. ‘I’m Peter, fifth floor,’ he added. We went our separate ways but curiosity got the better of me and I phoned down to the switchboard and asked if there was a Peter who worked on the fifth floor.

“There was... and he was only the Head of TV! I called him and asked if he’d been serious because I was very interested and he told me to come up and see him. That was the beginning of my TV career and I started presenting a few children’s programmes.”

These days, Martin is best-known for presenting Homes Under the Hammer, the very popular BBC1 weekday morning show where properties are bought at auction and then ‘done up’.

“We’ve gained viewers over the last year,” he says. “I guess that’s not surprising as more people are around to watch but also the show is a bit of escapism and so many of us dream of renovating property as a means of making money.

“We didn’t film at all during the first lockdown but by the time the second one came around we’d worked out a Covid-secure way to do it. It’s just me and the cameraman as we view the properties – we’re only able to do one a day – and the director watches us on Zoom. I interview the buyer from a safe distance. It has also been difficult getting footage from the auction houses but we are slowly managing to make new shows.”

Some the world’s most A-list stars are fans of Homes Under the Hammer. “There’s Meryl Steep – when she was on the Graham Norton show she revealed she loved watching it,” Martin laughs. “I’ve no idea what she must make of a two- up, two-down in Derby!

“Daniel Craig is also a fan. A friend of a friend was a make-up artist on one of the James Bond films and she told me that Daniel always told his assistant to leave the show on in his Winnebago because he liked watching it. Then there’s Sir Paul McCartney. Apparently, he likes watching it when he’s at the gym!

“It’s great that we pull in 1.5 million viewers per episode but it gives me a buzz to think A-plus list stars like it too.”

What does Martin, who’s been presenting the show since it started in 2003, think the appeal of the show is?

“There’s a charm to it,” he replies. “Transforming a property, making it into lovely place... it’s a bit of a fairystory because you have the ability to kiss these property frogs and turn them into princes/princesses. It’s accessible.

“We show normal people buying relatively inexpensive houses, putting money, time and effort into them and turning them into nice places to live in, rent out or sell on. Many people feel inspired to do it themselves.

“Apart from Homes Under the Hammer, I run property courses for people who are interested in having a go themselves. I’ve bought and renovated properties myself for years and years.”

“It’s been 19 years now, which is extraordinary! We’re approaching our 2000th show soon. When we get to 20 years on TV, there needs to be a celebration,” he enthuses.

“I try to bring information; a feeling that you could actually achieve this. It’s entertaining and fun. It isn’t Grand Designs, where you need millions to do something wild and wacky. They are just normal houses, which normal people do up.”

Over the years, Martin has seen a fair few dicey buildings in his time. But the one he is currently renovating himself has thrown up a whole new challenge – ghosts! Martin says: “One of my builders who was working there stayed overnight in one of the rooms and left screaming, so he was obviously freaked out by a few weird things that were happening.

“I haven’t seen my ghosts but I know they are around. The house was built in 1650 so it has 400 years of history.”

To find out more, Martin called in paranormal investigators for a new TV series called Celebrity Help! My House is Haunted. Martin says: “The premise of the show is there are six celebrities who all own properties inhabited by people other than themselves, to various degrees of annoyance!

“In my case, I’m quite happy that my ghosts are there! I was more fascinated to find out exactly who they were and now I know. As far as I am concerned, I am just passing through and they are welcome to stay there. I even left them Christmas presents.

“There are four at least. I never feel alone, that’s for sure! There are probably bad spirits about but mine aren’t. One of the ghosts is called Bill and one of the investigators who came along said he could see him sitting in the front room with a shotgun! I think he’s protecting the house.”

As a father himself and long-time supporter and campaigner for the NSPCC, Martin set up The Martin Roberts Foundation to help address the need for ongoing awareness of charities such as Childline and as a vehicle to raise money through donations and sponsorship. His most recent project has been to write a children’s book called Sadsville.

“Covid has really impacted children and the extent of this may not be realised for some time,” Martin (57) explains. “Child depression, anxiety and sadness are on the increase and our story tackles this in a sensitive yet entertaining way. I’m very proud to say that every primary school in the UK has received a copy of the book for teachers to read to their pupils and I’m hoping that the story can support children and encourage them to ask for help.”

Martin's early life

Martin has been a familiar face on TV screens for years but never set out for a career in television. He started dabbling in property in his early 20s after studying electrical engineering at Bradford University.

He smiles: “It was a long and winding route to get to where I am today and some very odd moves along the way. So when I talk about renovating properties with such knowledge on Homes Under The Hammer, I’ve been there. I’ve got grubby hands, dirty fingernails and lots of cuts all over me to prove it.” Martin, whose dad was heavily into DIY, bought his first house at 22. “I did it up myself and doubled the price,” he says. At the time he was also working for local hospital radio, before moving to BBC radio.

“Eventually I got onto Radio 4 and subsequently a travel show that led to Wish You Were Here with Judith Chalmers and then Homes Under The Hammer.” These days, he lives on the outskirts of Bath with his wife Kirsty and their two children Scott (14) and Megan (12).

He has been open about the fact that he was bullied as a youngster, which led to him starting the charity, The Martin Roberts Foundation to help children in similar situations.

“As a child I was fat and I was bullied throughout school. My charity is all about child mental wellbeing. It’s about education and safeguarding issues for children and young people. I wrote a book called Sadsville to support the NSPCC, aimed at seven to ten-year-olds to help them think about their emotions. We distribute this book and give free copies to every primary school in the UK as a teacher’s guide and lesson plan. I’m doing my bit to try to encourage kids to know that if they’re struggling, people won’t judge them.”

Martin looks after his own mental health by being close to nature. “I’m an emotional rollercoaster kind of guy so being outdoors, whatever the weather, I feel more at peace. I love walking, especially with my Labradoodle Wofful, that’s my happy place.”

Homes Under the Hammer, BBC1, weekdays, 10am. To find out more about Martin’s children’s charity, visit martinrobertsfoundation.org.uk

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