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A taste of the South Downs on the BBC

4 Mar

I don’t watch a lot of television these days, but occasionally a programme comes along that justifies taking time out to watch on BBC iPlayer. Such was the case with The Great British Countryside which saw Julia Bradbury and Hugh Dennis exploring the South Downs.

The hour long programme gives a wonderful taste of the South Downs, never lingering long in one place and covering the length of hills from the Seven Sisters on the East Sussex coast, through to the watercress beds of Hampshire.

There is some wonderful scenery, as one would expect, but also some explanation of how the Downs were formed and some of the properties of chalk and flint. Hugh Dennis climbs the chalk cliffs (presumably one of the Seven Sisters) and sees just how soft and crumbly the chalk is. We also learn how the chalk impacts on things like horse racing and growing grapes.

Subjects are varied, taking in the history, agriculture, industry and leisure aspects of the South Downs, in short a real cross-section of how man has interacted with the Downs over the centuries.

This programme is a great introduction to the South Downs and even those like me who have grown up in it’s shadow may learn a thing or two about this wonderful landscape.

This episode of The Great British Countryside is available to watch on BBC iPlayer until Thursday 15th March 2012.

Copyright © 2012 John Gasson.
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Your Family History Magazine – Happy First Anniversary

14 May

You may remember that a little over a year ago I wrote about the first issue of Your Family History Magazine and to celebrate its first anniversary I was asked if I would like to take a look at the latest issue. I realise I am a little late to the party as the next issue will soon be out very soon.

The anniversary issue is number 14, which seems a little strange for a monthly magazine which is only a year old, but then as family historians we are used to trying to fit more into the time available so I shouldn’t really be surprised. The cover bears a large picture of Kate Middleton reminding us that this is also a Royal Wedding issue as well as an anniversary issue, with an article on some of her ancestors and also an article looking at Royal wedding dresses over the centuries.

There are some great articles in this issue covering a good selection of topics. One that really stands out for me is the article 1911-2011 A Century of Family History by Else Churchill which describes the origins of The Society of Genealogists (in its centenary year), takes a look at their library and their online offerings.

I also found the article Going Down Under particularly interesting. It was written by Neil Kevan of Title Research, which is a probate genealogy company, as such it not only gives some useful background information on research in Australia and New Zealand but also provides some insight into the probate genealogy business.

Something I really like about the magazine is that there seems to be less emphasis placed on technology. Sure there is news of the latest internet releases from the major online players and elsewhere, but much space is also devoted to reviews of traditional media.

Some may see this as a disadvantage, but having spent far too much time online being bombarded by information about how we should all be social networking and how technology is going to radically change the future of family history, it is refreshing not to find it in the pages of this magazine. If I wanted to find out how to get the best from my scanner or digital camera I probably wouldn’t be looking to a family history magazine for advice.

The magazine delivers the same high quality and well written articles as it did when it started out. The format doesn’t seem to have changed, it still has all the features you would usually expect from a family history magazine, and the quality of production is excellent. The price has risen slightly in the last year (up to £4.25 from £3.99), but it still represents excellent value for money.

Copyright © 2011 John Gasson.
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Who Do You Think You Are? – Alan Cumming

14 Sep

The producers of Who Do You Think You Are? were certainly saving the best for last. Last night’s episode featuring actor Alan Cumming was without doubt the best episode of the seventh series, and probably one of the best episodes in the show’s six year history.

Alan Cumming was an enthusiastic participant and one that I had heard of previously (although my memories are of The High Life rather than any of his more acclaimed performances). At the start seemed to be enjoying hearing about the stories his grandfather’s bravery a little too much, but my heart really went out to him at the end with the story of his grandfather’s tragic and needless death.

He certainly didn’t seem prepared for the shocking details and I certainly felt more than a little uncomfortable watching his reactions on screen. In an episode that focused very much on the effects that war and killing can have on someone’s mental health, I couldn’t help but wonder what effect the programme might have on Cumming himself and ultimately his mother, and wonder if perhaps the programme went a little too far.

Ironically I had earlier in the evening written (in a private email) about how I felt there had been a lack of any real emotion in this series and I can safely say that this was the only episode where I personally felt any real emotional reaction whilst watching the series.

As well as being an excellent episode in itself, it has also served to highlight just how mediocre some of the previous episodes in this series had been. The “shocking” story of Bruce Forsyth’s bigamist great-grandfather that opened the series was nothing in comparison to the truly heart-breaking story of Cumming’s grandfather.

Who Do You Think You Are? – Hugh Quarshie

7 Sep

Last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC One was in my opinion probably the best of the series so far (and we are almost at the end now). It featured Hugh Quarshie, an actor who I had never heard of until Who Do You Think You Are?, although once again this is a reflection on my viewing habits rather than his ability or “celebrity” status.

I would admit that I was not really expecting to find this story very interesting, I have no experience of African research and thus no real interest in the subject, but as it turned out the story produced what for me has been the most memorable, engaging and emotional episode of the current series.

The most notable feature was the difference in the research process from other episodes. This episode relied mainly on oral history, tradition and unofficial sources, with most of the archival research taking place almost the very end of the programme. It was great to see this method being used so extensively and only being followed up with documentary research later on (although I am sure the researchers had done their stuff earlier on).

It was good to see a participant who was so actively involved in the journey, and showed real enthusiasm and passion for the story. It was truly heart-warming to see Hugh being introduced to so many relations as the story unfolded. In truth much family history research bears little relevance to everyday life, but here was an example where being descended from a particular person really meant something in the present day.

The final closing piece to camera produced another memorable line, “It’s not only that there is no black and white, but there is so much colour in this story”. A truly wonderful sentiment on which to end the show.

On a more personal note, many years ago at school I was forced to study Ghana as part of my geography lessons, and it was this aspect that turned me off the subject of geography so entirely. In retrospect I think now that it was probably the teaching that was putting me off rather than the subject itself, as I am sure I learnt much more in this one hour than an entire term of lessons.

Who Do You Think You Are? – Jason Donovan

31 Aug

Last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Jason Donovan was an enjoyable and interesting programme, but not outstanding. For me this series has so far lacked any really memorable (for the right reason) episodes.

I was a little surprised to find Jason Donovan on the UK version of the show rather than the Australian version, but that didn’t really matter as I was keen to learn a bit more about Australian family history. Whilst we learnt quite a bit about convicts (was anyone really surprised that he had at least one convict ancestor?), I would have liked to learnt more about everyday records, like those of birth, marriage and death.

That being said the stories uncovered were interesting, focusing mainly on three individuals, the two earliest ancestors being different sides of the same coin, convict and guard. It was the second of these, William Cox, that provided the most interesting story, travelling to Australia with his family and ending up as a pioneer paving the way for the growth of the Australian nation.

I was a bit confused by the preview of programme which said that they uncovered a miscarriage of justice, sure the punishment of transportation was harsh, but there was no indication why this should be seen as inappropriate for the time or any irregularities in the trial.

This episode did produce my favourite line of the series so far, when Jason told his first cousin once removed that he had been “too interested in myself for too long”. I don’t think it is just Jason that feels this, I think many people at one time or another realise this is case and wants to find out more about where they came from.

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