Jodie Whittaker reveals why she wanted to delve into her family history in Who Do You Think You Are?
Amy Raphael talks to Jodie Whittaker ahead of her Who Do You Think You Are? episode.
Jodie Whittaker is famously private, something of a reluctant celebrity and a virtuoso secret keeper. She managed, somehow, not to shout out loud to anyone who’d listen when she was cast as the 13th Doctor Who back in 2017 and waited, impatiently, for the news to be broken to the rest of the world. A few years earlier, she was similarly silent about the finale of the first series of Broadchurch, in which the killer of her on-screen son was revealed to nine million shocked viewers.
Whittaker, 38, shuns social media and avoids, where possible, talking about her husband and child. She married Christian Contreras in 2008, having met him when they were both studying at London’s prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but the name of their five-year-old daughter has never been made public. She is so private, in fact, that the “personal life” section of her Wikipedia entry is barely four lines long and includes the oddly coupled facts that “Whittaker is a feminist and lives in London”, as though she might not have been a feminist had she stayed in her native Yorkshire.
It’s a little surprising, then, that Whittaker agreed to appear in the new series of Who Do You Think You Are? Or maybe not; answering with all the intensity, fervour and dynamism she brings to acting, she says via Zoom that she didn’t hesitate when invited to appear on the genealogy series. “I was never teetering on the ‘Will I? Won’t I?’, I was always absolutely, ‘Oh my God, yeah!’ I was definitely keen. I’m not very good at playing too cool for school anyway. It’s not in my nature.”
She’d seen friends on WDYTYA? – Olivia Colman and David Tennant, her Broadchurch co-stars and, in Tennant’s case, also the former Doctor whose advice she sought on being offered the role – and still remembers Boy George’s emotional episode. “His story knocked me for six. I was blubbing my eyes out. When I started filming WDYTYA? in February, I kept thinking, ‘I don’t know if I could cope with that’.”
Boy George’s episode lurched from one tragedy to the next, from infant mortality to TB, so it’s not surprising Whittaker was hoping for a less dramatic narrative arc, but equally she was fearful that her back story might be, as she puts it, “booorrriiinngg”.
It wasn’t very likely because, of course, WDYTYA? only approaches those with strong family stories, plus, as Whittaker points out, “We’re quite a chatty family with a lot of big personalities in it and I don’t feel like we’re the first generation of those big personalities.”
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Whittaker says that she knew very little about her ancestry – “It’s not like, ‘Oh it goes all blurry after 300 years’. It goes a bit blurry after my mum and dad!” – but she did know a few key things about both sides. She “adored” her flamboyant paternal grandmother, Greta Verdun, and she has a photo of her great-grandfather in which he is flanked by a bunch of policemen (see overleaf). The date on the photo is 1921, during the National Coal Strike, but more on that later…
The journey starts in Whittaker’s birthplace. Skelmanthorpe, six miles south east of Huddersfield, is the kind of village where, like Broadchurch, everyone knows everyone else’s business. It doesn’t make a cameo in the episode, but apparently there’s a custom-built TARDIS on the high street in celebration of the local lass becoming the first female Doctor Who. Numerous newspaper articles have documented how widely loved Whittaker is in the village, in part no doubt because she has lost nowt of her Yorkshire accent despite leaving home at 18.
Whittaker meets her mum and dad in a pub in “Shat”, a nickname given by the locals to their West Yorkshire mining village in honour of the Shatterers or unskilled labourers who used to break up rocks during the construction of the railways. The Junction Inn was once run by Whittaker’s paternal grandparents, the aforementioned Greta and her husband Harold, after they left north London for Yorkshire.
Greta’s middle name, Verdun, was thought to be in honour of her half-brother Walter, who legend had it was killed in battle there in 1916. “I’ve always had an emotional attachment to my grandmother’s name; to me, she sounded like a French movie star,” says Whittaker. She is quickly disavowed of this myth and learns both about Walter’s bravery as a First World War soldier and his place outside the heart of the family.
Visiting a disused and dilapidated military hospital in Cambridge, Whittaker is moved by Walter’s ordeals, but it makes her miss her grandmother Greta more than ever. “I’ve been gifted this information because I’m a little bit well known and get to be on a telly programme, but I can’t share it with the one person whose life it would make. I got a lot of my theatrics from Greta and I accidentally ended up living in a similar part of north London, so without meaning to, I have followed her.”
But it’s her mother’s side of the family where the greatest intrigue and personal turmoil lie. What exactly is the story behind the photo of her great-grandfather, Edwin Auckland, four of his brothers and the policemen?
Whittaker grimaces as she talks to her mother about the photo. “As I understand it, it’s their colliery and they’re working through the strike… It’s not an ideal bit of your family history.” Her mother, in turn, explains how, years later, she was ostracised at the school she went to with coal miners’ children because everyone remembered how her grandfather failed to support the strike. It’s an uncomfortable conversation.
“Essentially they were scabs,” says Jodie, chatting to her mum on screen. “Living here during the 80s, the idea that you work through a strike feels like it goes against everything you are brought up to believe in.”
“Exactly. And if I’ve had to talk about it, I’ve never defended them,” says her mother, sounding sad rather than defensive.
At the National Coal Mining Museum, a former miner who is now a tour guide shows Whittaker the 1901 census. Her great-great-grandfather, Edwin senior, started working in the mines at the age of eight and the work was brutal: he used to lie “on his side or on his stomach, digging coal by hand with a pick. He was paid for the amount he got.” Within 20 years, however, he’d become a contractor at a colliery and was effectively running a mine with his sons, including Whittaker’s great-grandfather Edwin.
During both the National Coal Strike of 1921 and the General Strike of 1926, when most miners were striking despite struggling to feed their kids, Edwin senior kept the mine going with his sons and, in the process, amassed a small fortune, running into millions at today’s rates. In a part of the country where mining was the bedrock of communities, it was a hugely divisive action.
It’s not an easy thing for Whittaker to discuss, even now. “I’ve always known I’m from a mining family and I knew the photograph of my great-grandfather potentially referenced a point in my family history I wouldn’t necessarily agree with emotionally or politically. I already knew there was a strike, but I was surprised by the details of it.”
And embarrassed? “My politics represent me. They can’t represent anyone else, even in your own tiny circle. I didn’t live in that time. I’ve got hindsight. The last mine shut in 2015 and I’m an 80s baby, so I was part of the fallout of that.”
The substantial amounts of money made by the family trickled down to Whittaker’s maternal grandfather, but he was bankrupt by his mid-20s, otherwise she, too, might have ended up as a beneficiary – might have gone to private school rather than the local comp. “I didn’t need to: look at me now! It’s sliding doors, isn’t it? [Money] doesn’t equate to a happy childhood. My great-great-grandfather went from a worker to a gentleman, but it’s not like I come from aristocracy. Class meant something back then.”
It still does. “Yes! I’m sitting in a blurry class these days because I was brought up working class but now, am I middle class? Some would say, ‘You don’t sound it’. But what does middle class sound like? Everyone’s so quick to put a label on everything.”
When Whittaker gave interviews for Venus, the 2006 film in which she was cast opposite Peter O’Toole before she’d even graduated from Guildhall, she was immediately judged on the basis of her Yorkshire accent. “There was this whole thing of [posh southern accent] ‘Where were you found?’ [Even posher southern accent] ‘In my graduation year at drama school, darling.’ Anyway, money obviously means something, but it doesn’t mean my life would have been better.”
I ask Whittaker if she’d had the chance to watch WDYTYA? with her mum and dad. Sitting on a plain chair in front of a blank white wall in her London home, careful to give nothing away about her home life, she sadly shakes her head. “COVID. I couldn’t meet anyone, could I? I didn’t see my mum and dad for a really long time after shooting that episode in February, which is why I see the show as a really special moment in time. I found out my family history and then we went into one of the biggest moments in history. Walter was around at the time of the Spanish flu and now we’re living through this.”
Is she still happy she agreed to do the show? “It’s hard when one of your kids goes into the public because you don’t necessarily want everything about your family on the telly. But with this, it’s done in such an intelligent way.” Whittaker leans forward and grins. “It’s so wonderful to be able to share family history with my parents, even if they watched it remotely and then we talked on the phone. We now have answers to questions that might never have been answered if I hadn’t been lucky enough to go on the show.”
This interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our TV Guide.
Jodie Whittaker's Who Do You Think You Are? episode airs Monday 12th October at 9pm on BBC One.