Saturday, 28 January 2012

'Who Do You Think You Are?'

I have a real passion for genealogy. My family has been traced back to the late seventeenth century, and there is nothing like seeing an ancestor’s name on a parish record or census. It’s an incredible feeling. And, genealogy has experienced something of a boom in the last decade, partly thanks to the hugely successful series, Who Do You Think You Are. The BBC programme has spawned an American TV series, and every month a genealogy magazine is published, giving advice for people to trace their own family tree. This is a fantastic example of how history can be made interesting, as well as showing how television is a powerful medium. Indeed, some episodes have garnered over four million viewers. [1] I think the series is great – there have been so many memorable episodes, from Alistair McGowan, to J.K. Rowling, David Tennant to Boris Johnson. If you’re sensing a ‘But’ here, that’s because there is one. There are a few problems with this kind of format, which can be related to some of the bigger problems with television. These life stories thrive on the dramatic, they have to be sensational or shocking to draw us in. To put it another way, is history not exciting enough without a familiar face to makes us watch? Surely this means, in some cases, the show becomes more about the celebrity than it does the history. Viewing figures dropped significantly for Tracy Emin’s episode (estimated at 3.54 million) when compared with the episode with J.K. Rowling; one article suggested that fewer people were interested in Tracy Emin, because she “can offend the mainstream”.[2] Also, while some episodes contain elements of social history, Michael Parkinson has stated that the producers dismissed his family tree for being too dull, as many of his ancestors were working class miners. What is interesting are the comments from this online article, with several people stating that the history of “normal” people, i.e., a large majority of the population, is being ignored.[3] A television producer however may not agree with this – he or she might say, “well that’s not an interesting story, for one, and for another they haven’t gone through much.” According to whom? I think it’s quite insulting for someone to dismiss your heritage in one foul swoop. However, let’s go for the pitch. My family consists of generations of farm labourers. Not particularly “television-worthy” you might say. But boring? Certainly not. Like Parkinson’s family, they would have been an ordinary group of people, living through an extraordinary amount of change during the Industrial Revolution, and the early twentieth century. It is fascinating to imagine what their lives would have been like, and how different it would be to the present. What was a typical day? What did they eat? What did their job involve? Even, what were they like? Most of these questions will never be answered. But the fascination is still there. History is about people, and perhaps Who Do You Think You Are should have a few more episodes on the “ordinary” men and women of society. Truthfully, anything that encourages history gets my vote, especially because television has the ability to reach such a wide audience. But this doesn’t mean the history of ordinary people is not worth telling.

[1] Busfield, Steve, “Davina McCall’s Who Do You Think You Are?” The Guardian, 16 July 2009,
[2] Papamichael, Stella, “Who Do You Want To See”, 14 October 2011
[3] Holmwood, Leigh, “Michael Parkinson: My Family Was Too Dull” The Guardian, 21 July 2009

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