Did Joan Bakewell invent Who Do You Think You Are?

"I knew the idea would be popular when I first suggested it to the BBC many years ago," the TV presenter and journalist says. So what happened next?

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Joan Bakewell has claimed she was the one who actually first came up with the idea behind hit genealogy series Who Do You Think You Are? – but the project flopped because she was missing one crucial ingredient. 

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In her new autobiography Stop the Clocks, the veteran broadcaster writes: “I knew the idea would be popular when I first suggested it to the BBC many years ago.”

Speaking at Cheltenham Literature Festival, Bakewell explained: “I’m always having ideas and putting them around, and people reject them. I’ve got a cupboard full of them.

“I had the idea that we are all interested in where we come from, in terms of genealogy, and that it would be a very interesting way of examining who we are, to know who was before us.

“And the BBC liked the idea, and they put a researcher/producer on the task of seeing how we could shape up such a programme.”

Unfortunately, what they came up with turned out to be very, very visually boring – and the project fell by the wayside. 

“Where we stubbed our toe and why it failed was because we thought, ‘Well there will be church records, there will be tax records, there will be census records,’ and all we had to show on the screen was paper,” she explained. 

“What we didn’t come up with was the thing that made it a total success, and that was the idea of celebrity.

“Because celebrity wasn’t a big deal when I thought of it, so the idea of saying, ‘We just ask different people,’ that wouldn’t have washed then.”

Bakewell added: “It was not me but someone else entirely who had this new idea and made a success of it.”

Success is the word: since its launch in 2004, Who Do You Think You Are? has run to 12 series. More than ten international adaptations exist, and it regularly attracts audiences of more than six million.

The show has traced the family histories of everyone from JK Rowling to Len Goodman to Nigella Lawson.

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But despite her enthusiasm for the idea, Bakewell herself has yet to star – and there is a good reason why. 

The 83-year-old was all set to take part and instructed a producer: “Go and find a Welsh pirate who was smuggling brandy into the corners of the Welsh coastline.”

“She came back and said, ‘Can’t find any’,” said a disappointed Bakewell.

There was even worse news to come.

“She said, ‘I’m afraid your destiny is the same as David Frost’s’,” Bakewell recalled.

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“And I said, ‘Ooh that sounds good.’ And she said, ‘Neither of you have got interesting backgrounds!'”