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Who Do You Think You Are? – Monty Don

10 Aug

I am still a little undecided about last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring Monty Don. It was certainly watchable, but I didn’t really feel that it was memorable. At least it didn’t irritate me like the first two episodes or have me shouting at the TV about poor research.

Monty Don seemed quite laid back about about the whole thing and there were few signs of the excitement or enthusiasm that we saw last week with Dervla Kirwan. The situation from the start was one many will be familiar with, one side of the family seems to dominate in family stories and background, with others barely getting a look in.

The two stories featured were both quite interesting, but the show was trying to look more at the reasons why things happened and the personalities and conflicts of the people involved, which is not easy unless diaries and journals have been left behind, as the vast majority of records involve hard facts and not emotions or personality. Even then it can sometimes be a very one sided.

I think this is probably what turned me off from the programme. Trying to understand the motivations behind our ancestor’s actions is difficult, and this programme just about managed to stay on the right side of fiction (unlike the Rupert Everett one).

There seemed a fair bit of research going on, although not as much as last week. I was surprised there was no trip to New Zealand to explore that part of the story further. I was especially pleased to see Monty Don with a notebook scribbling things down, rather than just relying on the cameras to catch everything, this gives me hope that the stories and research will live on beyond just the filming.

Overall I felt this episode was an improvement on the first two, but not quite up to the standard of last week and still below par compared to earlier series. Still, it gives me hope for the rest of this series.

Who Do You Think You Are? – Dervla Kirwan

3 Aug

I am glad I made the effort to watch WDYTYA last night, because last night’s episode saw a return to form for the series after a rather poor start this year.

I have virtually no knowledge of Irish history, and my family history is almost completely devoid of any Irish connection, so I was surprised to find the episode so interesting and after last week I was extremely surprised to find it so enjoyable to watch. I think this is in part due to the fact that whilst the first half of the programme was specifically related to the Irish situation, the second half could really have taken place anywhere around the world where different religions have come into contact with each other.

Dervla Kirwan seemed to be genuinely interested in finding out about the two aspects of her family history that were featured in the programme, and appeared to be actively involved in the research process. There was a real sense of genuine exploration and depth to the research, which I felt has been lacking from earlier episodes. We found out much more than just births, marriages and deaths, although they were a significant feature.

I lost count of the number of different libraries and archives that she visited and the number of experts (on a wide range of subjects) that were on hand to explain the background and help interpret the records, that was really pleasing to see.

I know the first two episodes have come into criticism (not just from me) for not exploring other branches of the family, and whilst this episode could be accused of the same, I felt that there was no need, the central stories were so much stronger that there just wasn’t the need to explore further. I think in the last two episodes I was hoping that there would be something interesting going on away from the main stories which were rather dull (or just badly told?).

Unlike the first two episodes which just left me wishing for the programme to hurry up and finish, this episode left me wishing that they could have carried on further and spent more time, and I was disappointed that the show had to end. Now, unlike last week I can’t wait to see what Monty Don discovers next week.

Who Do You Think You Are? – Rupert Everett

27 Jul

To be honest I was a little disappointed with last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? I must also confess that I still have no idea who Rupert Everett actually is (I obviously don’t waste enough time watching TV and films), although I did miss the first couple of minutes which would probably have told me more about his career.

The story was more interesting to me than last week’s episode, there at least appeared to be some proper research research going on, but my first complaint was that there were too many loose ends left dangling.

It appeared on screen that virtually no effort was put into finding out what happened to the wives of Frederick William Cunningham Everett when he sailed off into the sunset. I am sure some more research must have been done, but if the only searches were the two census searches that we saw on screen then I am not surprised that his first wife wasn’t found.

It was almost as if they were leaving that avenue of research open for some audience participation, but they weren’t quite bold enough to say it. I am sure there will be plenty of people online today looking for her, trying to prove they can do a better job than the show’s researchers.

What really frustrated me the most were Everett’s ‘flights of fantasy’. He seemed to have a very vivid imagination and lack of hard evidence seemed to allow him ample opportunity to fill in the gaps. The informant on Frederick’s death certificate “must be some old sailor hag”, even though all he knew was a name (not even a first name just initials and a surname) and address.

I can’t let the use of the word “navvy” go unmentioned. Someone please correct me if I am wrong but merchant seamen, or any other type of sailors, have never been called navvies. I always thought navvy was short for navigator, and that navvies were the labourers responsible for building canals and railways.

Two episodes into this latest series and it is starting to seem to me that it has reached the end of it’s life. It will be interesting to see what the ratings say, but this avid genealogist is beginning to wonder if it is worth watching the rest of the series.

Who Do You Think You Are? Bruce Forsyth

20 Jul

Last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring the entertainment legend Bruce Forsyth, was the first of the nine episodes in the new UK series.

Whilst the story of Bruce’s great-grandfather Joseph Forsyth Johnson was quite an interesting one, a successful landscape gardener with a wife and family on both sides of the Atlantic who died poor, the way the story was told seemed very long-winded to me.

The way the research was carried out seemed incredibly laboured, or at least that was the way it seemed on screen. I was left with the feeling that given access to the right online database (and a trip to the Family History Centre) I could have done most of the search in a couple of hours. They didn’t seem to stray very far from census returns, passenger lists and directories, most of which are easily accessible these days.

I am sure there was more research going on behind the scenes. One of the first things I would have done is contact the American ‘cousin’ to see what she knew. I expect the researchers probably did, but just didn’t show it on film. The overall impression was that they were dragging the story out to fill the full hour.

I feel the story surrounding his two wives was not really explained, but to be fair probably it never would be satisfactorily (through lack of records), but the fact that Joseph was coming back over to England to visit his children suggests that the split with his first wife may have been amicable (from the diary some of his children certainly didn’t seem to bear him any bad feeling), rather than him running away to America and abandoning them, which was the impression that I got from watching the show.

I even found the ending of the show rather predictable, the saccharine closing comments of the narrator about the cemetery, were not unsurprising and I would have been disappointed if Bruce hadn’t made some effort to have the grave of Joseph marked in some way, after all I am sure he has the money to be able to afford it.

Overall it was an interesting story, but it probably could have been told in half the time. Alright perhaps for the casual viewer, but for a demanding (impatient?) genealogist it fell short of previous episodes.

Victorian Pharmacy

19 Jul

Last Thursday saw the first episode  of a new four part series on BBC 2 entitled Victorian Pharmacy. The series is produced by the same company (Lion Television) who produced Victorian Farm, which was shown last year.

The series looks at the workings of a Victorian pharmacists’ shop. The first episode sees the shows two main stars, Ruth Goodman (also from Victorian Farm) and Nick Barber, along with their apprentice Tom Quick setting up shop in the re-constructed Victorian town at Blists Hill.

We saw quite a wide range of activities in the first episode, from gathering herbs for traditional remedies to the creation of a slightly more scientific remedy in a rather basic (by today’s standards) laboratory.

Like Victorian Farm there were several experts on hand to explain some of the principles, and there was also a stream of ‘customers’ willing to try out their remedies and treatments.

Their shop was quite spectacular to look at with all sorts of bottles, jars, pots, boxes and packages displayed on the counter, in glass cabinets and on shelves. I am not sure how typical this would have been, because the shop is itself is a museum exhibit.

I certainly had trouble reconciling the image that I have in my mind of my GEERING chemists and druggists with what was shown on screen. Admittedly my mental image comes largely from the description provided by Thomas Geering in his book Our Sussex Parish.

I just can’t imagine my GEERINGs mixing remedies or gathering ingredients from the countryside surrounding Hailsham, Sussex. I see them more as shopkeepers buying in ready made preparations for sale to the residents of Hailsham.

Overall the programme was fun and entertaining, there was a small element of education, but the emphasis was more on things that seemed shocking or laughable to our modern eyes, like the use of leeches.

As a glimpse into the possible lives of my ancestors it is invaluable, I just wish I knew more about what was in their shop and whether their business flourished or was avoided like the plague by the residents of Hailsham.

Who Do You Think You Are? US – Brooke Shields

5 Jul

Sunday night saw the screening of another episode of the US version of Who Do You Think You Are?, this one featuring actress Brooke Shields.

At the start I was beginning to wonder if there was going to be any genealogy, as it seemed to take ages to get moving and away from the fact that she was from New York.

The first part in Newark was quite interesting, not only because of the obligatory ‘celebrity trying to work a microfilm reader’ shot, but also because of the picture that the historian was able to paint of the neighbourhood.

I did feel that the programme left this side of the family a bit prematurely. I would have liked to find out where the (probably) immigrant ancestors had come from, but I guess the travel budget was being saved for the other side of the family.

The other side of the family was the rich and famous side, and as such there was no genealogy seen on screen, other than the handing over of a scroll with her father’s ancestry already laid out for her.

We have seen this several times on the UK version, where the show moves away from researching and interpreting the lives of the ancestors, to capturing the reaction of the celebrity as he/she is revealed to be the descendant of increasingly wealthy/powerful/pious individuals.

Brooke Shields seemed genuinely interest and enthusiastic as she was shown paintings and sculptures of her illustrious ancestors and it certainly made for great television. Like the previous episode, the best place to find out more details is on the NBC website, not the BBC website.

Coming up next week is Susan Sarandon, on BBC One at 10.35pm on Monday 12th July 2010.

Who Do You Think You Are? US: Sarah Jessica Parker

14 Jun

At last we have seen an episode for the US version of Who Do You Think You Are? on British television, for the time being at least, it seems that this is the only programme from the series that we will be seeing.

The actual story of Sarah Jessica Parker’s ancestors is covered in depth elsewhere, so I won’t go into any detail about what was revealed. This in itself is one of the big differences between the UK and US versions of the series, the amount of information provided by NBC about each celebrity is enormous compared to the amount provided by the BBC. This isn’t just a case of the information already being out there so the BBC didn’t need to bother, it was pretty much the same with the last UK series as well.

Apart from that there weren’t really that many important differences, or at least it is hard to judge from just one episode. For example, Sarah Jessica Parker seemed to get incredibly excited as every piece of new information appeared, whether this is just her personality or whether the programme makers were trying to show how exciting genealogy research can be is hard to say.

Again at the beginning of the show she seemed to spend more time talking to her family about what she/they expected to find out. I would have thought it pretty obvious that they would find some roots deep in American history somewhere within the branches of her family tree.

The fact that the programme was dealing with aspects of American history didn’t really make much of a difference to me. Most of the events mentioned were known to me, but really in name only. The level of detail provided was just right, I didn’t need to know in great detail what happened to appreciate the importance of of the events.

I would say the programme itself wasn’t that different from the UK version, typically much of the research process itself took place behind the scenes, so all we saw were the relevant documents being delivered and interpreted. I think the programme was slightly faster paced than the UK version. I think they covered the same number of stories in 46 minutes as they would normally cover in an hour in the UK.

All in all, I would say I enjoyed this episode, even though most of the subject matter was not of personal interest. I look forward to one day seeing the rest of the episodes (I could probably find a way of watching them online if I wanted to).

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