“Got to watch my weight. Because I’m on the telly, you see.” Gregg Wallace – of MasterChef fame – laughs and shrugs. We are sitting in his eponymous south London restaurant, where he’s just had lunch. “I’m working out the calories of what I’ve just eaten. Gotta keep to 2,000 calories a day. On MasterChef, I reckon each tasting is about 50 calories per mouthful.”
He says he goes to the gym three times a day. Then he tells me he has spreadsheets accounting for every single one of his enterprises (which include two restaurants, a small fruit-and-veg business, a farm, plus all the telly stuff). He knows exactly what his money is doing at any single moment of the day. He understands his name, and his fame. He is a proudly self-made man with a keen understanding of his own graft and achievements.
“My fear of poverty is slowly dwindling,” says Wallace, 47, who left school at 14 with very little and now has rather a lot. “I don’t believe in fate. But I was acutely aware that I had less than everyone else. And that left a mark on me.”
A self-confessed amateur historian with a burning family solidarity, perhaps piqued by the devastating teenage discovery that his father was his mother’s long-term boyfriend, not his dad (who was at that point divorcing his mum), it was inconceivable that when Who Do You Think You Are? came calling, Wallace would send the programme-makers away.
Of course, he hoped that the show would uncover something noble, dashing, enterprising. Perhaps, he thought, he might discover that his unexpected father had relations who figured importantly in the Napoleonic wars or the Russian Revolution. He certainly never envisaged the show would bring him to a sense of shame. Or reduce him to tears…
Actually, the show does not consider his wedlock-liberated parentage. Instead, this episode traces the fate of Gregg’s maternal great-grandfather, one Henry Springett, a chap who appears before us in monochrome, wearing a sailor suit.
Not a dashing Captain Springett, but a grimy stoker who went to sea in a steam-powered decoy boat during the First World War. Deliberately concealed as a merchant ship in order to foil, and destroy, U-boats, the decoy boat was one of the unsung heroes of the Navy effort. And the stokers were the unsung heroes of the boat itself, shovelling tons of coal into its furnaces all day and night to keep it going.
“Living in that terrific heat, with the fear that you might be blown up at any time” ... Wallace shudders at the imagined picture. That was the least of it, however; outside the war, Wallace finds that Springett is dogged by death, bereavement and disaster. “He suffers more than any human being should endure,” he says, shaking his head.
Springett’s uncovered history devastates Wallace. “Yes, I cried in the show. I did feel a connection with these people.” Celebrity on-camera tears are often vaguely suspect; here, however, Wallace dares the viewer to remain dry-eyed. “Anyone human would be moved.”