If asked to do Who Do You Think You Are? the answer has to be ‘Yes please’, but you’d be mad not to give it at least a moment’s pause. I can’t remember what the agreement is that you sign, but I’m pretty sure Wall to Wall (the production company that makes the series) is at complete liberty to follow its nose, story-wise.
You may discover that your maternal great-grandfather was responsible for banning the international trade in orphans’ tears for use in high-end skincare products, but equally you might find that on your father’s side you are in fact a first cousin of Justin Bieber. And whichever it is, you’ll just have to suck it up and try to look as gracious as possible.
I owe my appearance on the programme in 2010 entirely to Andy Hamilton. Andy wrote a sketch for Ben Miller and me in which I go on WDYTYA in search of something profile-raising and – ideally – career-extending in my family tree, only to discover whores and pederasts at every turn.
When I actually came to do it for real, I had a lurking fear that somewhere in the researchers’ excitement was just the merest twinkle of poetic justice. As it turned out I got away with it – but it was at least a
week into filming before I could relax.
The experience is like having one of those exploratory sigmoidoscope cameras sent up inside you. Things that are deeply part of you but that you’ve never been aware of before, things over which you have no control and for which you can’t claim any responsibility, flash up on screen, thereafter to be indelibly associated with you. But the sigmoidoscope can only take one route, when in truth the possible upward journeys through genealogy are countless.
Among my forebears is an abolitionist MP, but there’s also a prominent 18th-century Bristolian merchant. So I could have been held up as the descendent of a family whose fortune was made from slavery or one whose reputation was made by its abolition. Once you’ve started swinging, chimp-like, through the branches of your family tree, you might easily end up anywhere.
The latest series of WDYTYA (Thursdays BBC1) kicked off with one of my new all-time favourites: the family history of Julie Walters. It demonstrated precisely why this clever programme has been such a hit over its ten-year reign. The format is part murder- mystery (even if there’s no actual murder, someone always dies – that’s just history) and part social history lesson (and who wouldn’t rather learn about a period through how it affected family life? So much more engaging than dreary acts of Parliament).
But best of all you get to spend an hour with someone in their “home clothes”, as it were. It’s a sort of “…and this is me” moment, but one that goes beyond even Mike Yarwood picking up a microphone and singing a song. And there’s no better company to be in than Julie Walters’s.
Her story began with her at home on her farm, blithely hoping that her Irish heritage would reveal an ancient connection to the land. And oh but didn’t it?
Her family’s story, however, back amid the eye- watering beauty of County Mayo, was no lofty idyll. It came crashing horribly down to earth as injustice after hideous injustice was heaped upon them by – and I wince to say this – the self-same Irish landowning stock from which I come.
That, I suppose, is the beautiful moral of WDYTYA: all our many pasts, proud or shameful, have somehow met and settled in the equilibrium of a more just and amicable present.
Waste not, want not
The show that presently has me so hooked I’ll be watching every episode is Scrappers (Fridays BBC1) Ingenious storylines and wonderful characters – best of all Terry, a man who has dedicated his life to finding value in things other people have written off.
See Who Do You Think You Are? tonight at 9:00pm on BBC1
Alexander Armstrong presents Pointless Celebrities, Saturday, and Pointless, Monday-Friday BBC1.