It’s an old story that people always imagine there’s someone famous in their background – well, we’re all descended from Adam and Eve, aren’t we…
Traditionally, celebrity genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are? has taken two paths. There are the forebears who suffered – either from poverty or war or other injustice – where we see the celebrity reduced to tears in front of a gravestone or a faded document. Think Patsy Kensit reflecting on her grandfather’s criminal past or Jeremy Paxman mourning his great-great-grandmother’s penury in the slums of Glasgow.
Then there are the ancestors who really did play a part in greater historical events. There’s little more satisfying than watching someone follow a family tree back centuries, only to be left gasping. Rower Matthew Pinsent had very blue blood, and who could forget Danny Dyer, saying, “I think I’m gonna treat myself to a ruff”, when shown that his family members included not only Thomas Cromwell, but Edward III. And in an American episode of the show from a few years back, supermodel Cindy Crawford counting back the generations – “37, 38, 39, 40, 41… you gotta be kidding me… Charlemagne?”
Which leads us to Courteney Cox. The first of her Friends co-stars to be tapped for the latest series by its executive producer, Lisa Kudrow (who herself appeared in the American version’s first season back in 2010), Cox was born in Alabama. Family lore leads her to believe she’s of “English, Irish, Welsh and Scottish” stock, but she doesn’t know much more than that. “I hope we didn’t murder anyone, but who knows…” she wonders.
An initial visit with an American genealogist nips us smartly back through the centuries and an ancestor who came to Virginia from Warwickshire in the 1640s as part of the Great Migration, as an economic, not a religious, migrant. “You’d better get to England,” he says, so she swaps walking barefoot along a Californian beach for driving up to the gates of Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. She’s on the trail of her 18-times great-grandfather Thomas de Berkeley and a certain note sent by him in 1327 (I’ll say no more, in case the historians among you are already twitching).
This is a cracker of an episode, in which Cox becomes increasingly boggle-eyed as ever more revealing ancient documents are unrolled in dusty records rooms in important places. She’s told about murder, intrigue, and slightly dodgy family connections, until by the end, she’s pretty flabbergasted: “You think they make this stuff up on Game of Thrones… they don’t.”
Who Do You Think You Are? US airs on Tuesday 20th March at 9pm on W