Secrets from the Workhouse is a stew of celebrity and sentimentality

So what if your ancestors toiled in a muddy field. It's not about you! says Alison Graham

It’s funny what effect sharing the merest daub of DNA with a distant ancestor can have on a person, particularly an actor. Instantly there is a connection, a vibrant, zinging telegraph wire straight to a past this person previously knew nothing, or very little, about.


It happens to celebrities in ITV’s Secrets from the Workhouse (Tuesday 9pm), as it does to everyone who takes part in Who Do You Think You Are? They see a bald name on an aged, official document, revealed with great reverence by a historian and bam! The celebrity searcher has his or her family narrative in place.

Brian Cox (the actor, not the star man) becomes furious over the fate of his great-grandfather, who went from poorhouse to poorhouse (as they were called in Scotland). “These endless attacks on his dignity… there’s something heroic in his story.” Then he cries: “Sorry… this is upsetting. He’s trying to get validity to his life, do you see that?” And, inevitably, “That’s the legacy he leaves his great-grandchildren.”

I was expecting this. Everyone does it. It’s in everyone’s 21st-century, media-literate, egocentric view of history and human nature to feel a connection to someone you couldn’t possibly ever have known. It’s history for television, a stew of celebrity and sentimentality and “it’s all about ME!” If the ancestor was grindingly poor, then so much the better. I can’t remember seeing a celeb confronted with a fantastically wealthy forebear and going, “Hey, good for him/her. That’s why I’m coining it, because of him/her. Isn’t that great? Now order me a car. I want to go to the Ivy.”

I know a little of my own family history – illiterate peasant farm workers in Yorkshire and possibly, though this is a bit hazy, Scots displaced by the Highland clearances to Ireland. It’s hugely interesting and I’d like to learn more but it’s impertinent of me to apply their hardships to any aspect of my own life. Yet if I was on a TV history show, I’d be expected to say, “Well, these people were obviously very tough to have survived back-breaking, ill-paid labour in fields, so obviously that must make me tough and I too would be able to survive in a field if I had to. It’s their legacy.”


This is rubbish, of course. I owe no more to my illiterate peasant forebears than I do to Yogi Bear or the Man from UNCLE. So I wish television would drop all these romantic notions about the nobility of poverty (see also The Village and probably Channel 4’s upcoming drama, The Mill, about mill workers) and its preternatural powers. It’s becoming a fetish, as is seizing upon an unfortunate soul from your past, some hapless sod buffeted by fates he or she couldn’t control. Because – can I say this again? – it’s not about YOU.