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.
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.
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.
Last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? featuring comedian and actor Alexander Armstrong was another enjoyable episode. It was good to see mention made of his appearance in a spoof of Who Do You Think You Are? from the Armstrong and Miller Show, which has been doing the rounds since it was announced he would be appearing on the show, at least the producers of WDYTYA don’t take themselves too seriously.
Initially I was a little disappointed by the fact that so much seemed to rely on published genealogies and pedigrees, in fact after they opened up a copy of Burke’s Irish Landed Gentry in the first few minutes I was beginning to wonder whether there was going to actually be any need to do any new research.
I think I tend to forget that published genealogies can be a valuable source in themselves, maybe not a primary source and not always 100% accurate, in this respect it makes them much like many other sources. Just because my ancestors do not appear on them doesn’t make them any less important.
There did seem to be a little bit of background research going on, but I felt this episode was more about Armstrong actually following his family tree rather than tracing it. So although most of the work had already been done it was interesting to watch the branches of his family tree creep back further and further, and his ancestors get wealthier and more influential/powerful.
Armstrong was quite enthusiastic about the whole exercise, although perhaps more as a spectator than an active participant, with him being given things to read next rather than him asking the questions and deciding which branches to follow. I got the impression it was a very well mapped out journey he was taking, but an interesting and enjoyable one nevertheless, with a couple of interesting twists.
Last night saw another excellent episode of Who Do You Think You Are? I must admit that I had never heard of Rupert Penry-Jones before (more a reflection on my viewing habits than anything else), and like the earlier episode featuring his wife Dervla Kirwan the subject matter (the English in India) was not really something I have any experience of.
It was an incredibly watchable programme, and Rupert Penry-Jones came across as a very likeable young man, and like Monty Don last week it was good to see him actually taking notes as the stories unfolded. It was also nice to see some quite clear research goals from the outset of the story. He certainly got his fair share of the travel budget in this programme, with visits to both Italy and India.
There was a nice contrast between relatively recent history (World War Two) and more distant research, both in time and geography, although both had a common Indian theme joining them. It was wonderful to see Penry-Jones listening to the stories of one of the men who had fought at Monte Cassino. Oral history is a wonderful resource to bring official records to life.
Whereas a couple of the earlier episodes have seemed rather drawn out, this certainly seemed to have a lot packed into it. I can’t help wondering what other interesting stories might have been skipped in the rush to prove to Indian ancestry.
I did think there were a couple of missed opportunities in the programme, with both husband and wife as subjects for this series of Who Do You Think You Are? it would have been interesting to see them sharing in each others experiences rather than the usual individual experience. Also, at the end of the programme I was surprised not to see Penry-Jones return to England and explain everything he had learnt to his mother, and seeing if she was just as interested as he expected her to be.
All in all another excellent episode, some excellent research and an interesting and likeable celebrity, my faith in Who Do You Think You Are? is slowly being restored, after a rather poor start to the series.