When the earlier series of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ were on television I hadn’t yet been bitten by the genealogy bug and so didn’t see any of them (and crikey, according to the web site there’s been five series… and I missed them all). This time round I’ve ensured that I haven’t missed a single second.
In one respect it’s been slightly disappointing – I was hoping that it would serve as a good guide to researching a family tree, but with the exception of Patsy Kensit it seems that most of the celebs have managed to hop on a plane and travel to exotic places to carry on their research (well, okay, admittedly Poland isn’t really what I’d call exotic).
The high point of the series so far, although not relevant for helping in the research of British ancestors, was Jerry Springer’s voyage of discovery. His realisation that his two grandmothers died during the holocaust was one of the most moving and compelling pieces of television I’ve ever seen, and his anger was balanced nicely with the final moments of joy when he discovered unknown cousins in Israel. Any viewer without a lump in their throat must have been truly devoid of emotions.
Ainsley Harriott’s journey was also bitter-sweet, but in a different way – he was angry at discovering a grandmother several generations back had been a slave in Jamaica… but then also discovered another ancestor had owned slaves. Still, Ainsley got to travel to Jamaica and Barbados on BBC expenses (paid for by me and some other British television viewers).
There has also been something slightly irritating – mere mortals like me have to do their own research… time-consuming and sometimes fruitless. I’ve been waiting for a chance to get to the archives in Kew for six months and I’m still no nearer to marking a day for a visit. By contrast, our celebs have had an army of researchers, historians and genealogists on hand – so when David Suchet walked into an office in Lithuania there were already a pile of documents waiting for him. Patsy Kensit seemed to go from not knowing the name of her grandfather to identifying a mid-1800s relative (and visiting his grave) in the space of one day. Maybe it was more than one day, but she was wearing the same clothes.
Final point – I wonder how many celebs the BBC researched before they came up with eight interesting histories. All of the six so far have had interesting ancestors and stories. Was that a lucky guess by the producers or did they research many more celebs and discard the boring ones? My father’s roots in Scotland and Sweden may have been interesting but unfortunately are untraceable. On my mother’s side we have fish mongers, cheese mongers, general labrourers and drapers from nowhere further afield than Essex to the East and County Mayo in Ireland to the West. If I were a celeb, I wonder if anyone would have found this interesting. What prompted the young Henry Clinch to take up cheese mongering, move from Berkshire to Chiswick, and then switch from cheese to eggs? It doesn’t exactly promise a great moment in television history.