They can now stop making Who Do You Think You Are. Not because the show is flagging in the ratings or running out of celebrities. It clearly isn’t. But because nobody will ever be able to match tonight’s episode. Who’s going to care about a notorious murderer or a revered artist lurking in someone’s ancestry? Danny Dyer is ROYAL. That is peak WDYTYA?
Whenever someone in the future says, “Did you see so and so discovering that their nan was a Victorian prostitute?”, the reply will come, “Yeah, but it wasn’t as good as when Danny Dyer unrolled that scroll and found out that he was related to Edward III.” Because – as you’ll see when the episode airs tonight – Dyer’s edition is the perfect match of format and subject matter.
Here is a man who is essentially on a quest for both a father figure and status. “I want a leader of men in my life,” Dyer says, and you immediately clock the pain he still feels at his own dad being largely absent during his childhood. When he finds out that his Victorian relations were in and out of the workhouse, he remarks, “Being poor is their crime.” Despite being asked for selfies wherever he goes, Dyer still obviously finds it difficult to reconcile his early life on the breadline in Canning Town with his current celebrity status.
WDYTYA? has always been a show about identity, but never has that been more striking than in the case of Danny Dyer. On the surface, there’s the patter and the swagger (that strut remains largely unchanged since the days of his football hooligan documentaries). But crack the carapace and you can glimpse the vulnerabilities. “This has given me more confidence,” he says when presented with the coat of arms belonging to his relation Thomas Cromwell. Danny Dyer – needing confidence? Who’d have thought?
Having said that, he is unashamedly Dyer-esque with everyone he meets, bending academia to his will in a series of hilarious encounters. “They’ve hit him for SEVERE readies,” he deadpans in one exchange. “Severe readies,” concurs the expert, the words obviously alien to his lips. Indeed, there are enough moments like this to keep Twitter sated for months. On Hampton Court Palace: “You could have a right rave in here, babe.” On an aristocratic relation: “Let’s go and have a bit of bunny with the Lord.” Sure, Dyer likes to project an image of everyman charm, but there’s a small hint of Ali G knowingness about these conversations too.
But what you take away is the astonishing nature of the findings and the uncanny parallels to Dyer’s own life. Hearing Thomas Cromwell described as “sharp”, “funny”, “controversial” and someone who “pushed it too far”, you can’t help but think about Dyer’s career trajectory and the occasions when he too has shot himself in the foot. In the end, both the episode and Dyer’s family history are stories about people succeeding against the odds and of adversity (sometimes self-created, but often not) breeding backbone. And while it’s doubtful we’ll see him crowned sovereign, there’s no doubting that Danny Dyer is a national treasure.
Who Do You Think You Are? can be seen tonight, Werdnesday 30th November, on BBC1 at 11:45pm