Who Do You Think You Are? Nearly 13 years after first appearing on our screens, the BBC show continues to fuel the fascination in genealogy and research into family histories. Alex Graham is the man behind the show Who Do You Think you Are? ‘It was my idea,’ he tells a packed crowd at Hull’s Carnegie Heritage Centre.
Attracting 6million viewers per episode in the U.K. the successful show has been has been syndicated to twenty European countries, and new versions of the show have been developed for overseas markets including the U.S. With a brand new series on the BBC beginning tomorrow Nov 24th beginning with hardman Eastenders soap star Danny Dyer, the current Chair of both the Scott Trust and Sheffield Doc Fest, sets out to answer the three most asked questions, surrounding the show namely:
- Have you ever turned someone down?
- Do the participants know where they are going?
- Have you ever lost anyone?
The short answer to those is yes, no and in the case of Patsy Kensit, nearly.
Buoyed by delivering a talk in the Carnegie Centre – Alex showing a little Scots pride – the audience are afforded an insight into the show’s continuing popularity, the inner workings, some secrets and a few of the more memorable moments.
Originally planned as a one-off series with just ten episodes, ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ would have been a natural follow-on, from the historical ‘reality’ shows of the time, such as ‘1900’s House’, ‘1940s House’ etc. The early plan was to have each episode feature a particular time in British history eg: the industrial revolution, battle of the Somme etc. It could be argued that in later years the show has become just that, with the inverse linear filming being replaced by whole programs, choosing to tell a particular story to a satisfactory conclusion. It is television, the programme has to work as a piece of entertainment, so as each celebrity embarks on their ten-day shoot they really do not know, where they are going to end up.
‘The show operates a bit like M.I.5 on a need to know basis.’
There’s laughter from the crowd, as Alex shows a clip of Boris Johnson learning that Wales is a country in Britain – he has the last laugh when the ex-Mayor of London, also learns that he is directly related to all the European Royal Houses.
Illustrating how the show decided upon its own direction, Alex plays a clip from the very first episode, where Bill Oddie learns he had a sister ‘Margaret Jean’ who died just five days old. The camera lingers on the death certificate where the printed word ‘years’ has been crossed out and replaced by ‘days’. The former Goodie is understandably shaken by this revelation and as filming continues, the programme makers realise the value of taking both the celeb and the viewers, on a real life journey filled with surprises: hidden clues leading to new discoveries.
‘You won’t make me cry,’
Many of the star names on the show say ‘You won’t make me cry,’ it is fair to say that many of them do have a moment during the show when the emotions all come to the fore, perhaps at the sight of a photograph or original document written or signed by an ancestor. Illustrating the point whilst simultaneously explaining the title of the talk is the Jeremy Paxman clip. It begins with Jeremy being bullish about the prospect of finding out about his past, he does everything but dismiss the whole thing as mere folly. Cut to a Bradford library, where he sees a document that indicates two, not so distant relatives’, untimely deaths, both succumbing to Tuberculosis at a young age. The tears are clear for everyone to see as Paxman realises just how, his ancestors suffered and the subsequent resilience, shown by those left behind.
‘The real stars of the show are the librarians and archivists’
The show is predicated on its authenticity and although there is a necessary amount of setting up a narrative behind the scenes before hand, the reactions from participants are filmed as they happen. When Friends star Lisa Kudrow finds the number of a distant cousin in the Gdynian phonebook, she really has no idea what will happen, when she dials the number. Likewise when actress Alex Kingston learns the reason behind a whole row of houses all occupied by women in Victorian London, the revelation that one of her ancestors, kept a house of ill-fame, is a complete surprise to her.
What is not a complete surprise is the other Jeremy playing to the camera, diving into a graveyard which he refers to as ‘Clarkson landfill’ and seeing how long it takes for him to find a deceased member of the Clarkson family. 10 seconds if you must know.
‘Who Do You Think You Are’ can have a profound and lasting effect on the celebrities who take part. Ian Hislop for example, after he discovered he had ancestors that fought in the Boer War and the 1914-18 war, not to mention – which they nearly didn’t – a mother who was in occupied Jersey during World War II, developed a deep fascination for the subject and has gone on to produce new work as a direct result of being on the show.
With the Jerry Springer effect oiling the wheels in the U.S. the show has successfully transferred over the pond and is now viewed as a global hit. Another new series for BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are suggests that genealogy remains rooted in the public psyche, as the show continues to teach us about our own social history.
The final clip of Sue Johnston speaking to camera, as an archivist hurries off to find a bundle of old dusty photographs in the wings, underlines the reason for the show’s endurance. ‘It’s about me,’ she says, making a direct link to her ancestors’ experiences to the way she views the world today.
Follow the new series starting Nov 24 on BBC 1
Finally appreciation must be shown to all the volunteers at The Carnegie Heritage Centre. It is testament to their hard work and generosity, that we have this valuable resource in the city. The centre is open for private and family research on Tuesdays and Fridays. To find out more see: http://www.carnegiehull.co.uk/