How we made The Secret History of My Family

Joseph Bullman, creator and director of the BBC2 documentary, on how he traced Victorians to their modern-day descendents

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“We wanted to make a show that was the opposite of Who Do You Think You Are?” says Joseph Bullman, creator and director of The Secret History of My Family, which maps the family lines of Victorian slum-dwellers, and middle-class individuals with whom they came into contact, to their modern-day descendants. Below he explains how the series was made:

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We started with names that stood out from conversations with William Miles [a Victorian man seemingly fascinated with criminals and the working classes] and started to trace backwards. It was a nerve-racking process, and we had no idea what direction they’d lead us in, or what had happened to their descendants. But we knew it would be interesting – every family has a story somewhere.

The four stories that eventually made it into the programme were the only ones we investigated. We didn’t have many to choose from, because not many people in Victorian times ever bothered to record what working class people thought – it just wasn’t seen as important.

Once we had the family names, our team of researchers began looking at birth and death records and ancestry websites, and started calling and emailing people to confirm what we thought we knew. We contacted hundreds, if not thousands of people.

Then we turned up on doorsteps, and said, ‘We know everything about your family.’ The stories we had about people’s ancestry [which include Shoreditch pickpockets banished to Australia, battered wives and Salford gang fights] were surprises to nearly everyone – and pretty much everybody was thrilled to find out about their history. 99% of people we spoke to were open and receptive and keen to put their families and parents in a different context.

As we got to know the descendants better, and found out more about their lives, we found eerie similarities in things that had happened to them with their ancestors. There’s a phrase, ‘ghosts in the nursery’, which really rang true – uncomfortably so in tonight’s episode, which was one of the most difficult of all to film.

The descendants came from the broad spectrum of social classes. The working class families were puffed up with pride about what they had achieved, and never felt that they’d been deprived. Lots of the middle-class families were suffering the burden of expectation, especially if a country house had been left in the family. It’s something that sounds like a privilege or luxury, but actually seems to cause more problems than it’s worth.

One of the things we found was that overwhelmingly, even after so many generations, people stayed within the social class they were born. It says a lot about how unjust and socially immobile Britain is, and makes me frightened that in another 200 years it still won’t change. Everyone should have the opportunity to succeed.

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The Secret History of My Family is on tonight at 8pm on BBC2