Thursday, 7 August 2014

Who Do You Think You Are - 10 Years, 100 Shows: review

The BBC broadcast a special one off retrospective programme on the last ten years of Who Do You Think You Are? tonight, entitled 10 Years, 100 Shows. The verdict? A huge thumbs up.

Who Do You Think You Are started in 2004 as a BBC2 series, produced by Wall to Wall, originally co-funded by the Open University and intended to act as the opening act of what the BBC used to call a 'learning journey' - you watched the programme, thought hmm, yes, could do with a bit more, then switched to a red button feature with a bit of background on the records featured, would think again, hmmm, could do with a wee bit more still, so then switched to BBC4 to watch a tie in series called Family Ties (remember that?!). By now the thought had appeared: maybe this might be something I could have a go at? So you then switched to the BBC website, and ultimately ended on another link heading towards the Open University website, and before you knew it you were completing a course and your learning journey, and then ending up with a graduation photo on your office desk, and a genealogy addiction for life.

That was the plan, that was the funding motivation - and then something else happened. Someone realised it was actually a successful series. But oh my God - it's on BBC2? Wasn't that where Newsnight lived? What will the neighbours think?! So they moved it to BBC1. At this point, I personally think the series, after an initial success, briefly lost its way for a short period, and temporarily dumbed down a bit - it was not long before we were soon realising that each series was seemingly working on what seemed to be a repetitive menu of the Irish story, the First World War story, the Holocaust story, the royal story. It all got a bit predictable. Thankfully, a few years back that particular rut was broken, and suddenly it became an interesting prospect again - and continues to be so.

Each series has had its ups and downs, largely to do with the stories it depicts and the celebrities it features - as with all areas of life, some will interest some, others will bore others. In recent years, I think the quality has actually been improving fantastically - there is still the occasional odd one that won't quite float the boat for viewers, and we will always disagree on which episodes they are. But what worked about the anniversary programme tonight was something I've not really seen in the series since the first run all those years back - this was actually a distillation about the potential of genealogy, not the long winded emotional journeys of celebrities. Archives, white gloves, emotional discoveries, relatives who were whores, criminals, victims of persecution, incorrigible rogues - a serious inventory of the sheer potential of what all of us already on the journey know is out there awaiting us after we find our first certificate or census entry.

Were there are any criticisms? A few - where was Nick Barratt? Not just as an interviewee (he was a key part of the beginning, in terms of research and as the original series genealogist) but because I WANTED AN ANNIVERSARY RED BUTTON FEATURE!!!! And it would have been nice to reference the success of the brand a little - as in the show, the magazine, the worldwide phenomenon (we did see Kim Cattrall, whose programme was also broadcast in the US version).

We did get some majorly satisfying highlights, a reflection of the one off moments we all remember. Alex Kingston's 'whores' (and Alexander Armstrong's hilarious spoof version), Jeremy Paxman saying 'bastard', Ian Hislop fighting an umbrella on Skye, Matthew Pinsent's descent from God, and Natasha Kaplinsky's emotional visit to a synagogue with her relative, who suddenly sang a heart-rending song in the ruins, amplifying the tragedy of the recalled Holocaust experience that they had been piecing together.

And they also caught up with those from past shows to ask how the episodes had affected them, including, I was delighted to see, the William Hartnell of the WDYTYA world, Bill Oddie, otherwise known as the First Celebrity. I still rate his episode as the best ever, not just for impact, but for content, and it proved that the WDYTYA TARDIS really did have a journey ahead of it.

So happy birthday Who Do You Think You Are - and let's get cracking with the next series!

If you missed the programme, check it out on the BBC iPlayer over the next 7 days at (UK only)


Now available for UK research is the new second edition of the best selling Tracing Your Family History on the Internet: A Guide for Family Historians, whilst my new book British and Irish Newspapers is also now out. And please consider purchasing the great new version of Caledonia by The Libations at 79p via - all profits go to help fund Scottish foodbanks

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