Wednesday 16 May 2012

Review: War Hero in my Family

This is just a quick shout for what is turning out to be the best family history show since Who Do You Think You Are started a few years back, and by a long shot. War Hero in my Family is a Channel 5 series that started 3 weeks back that is quite simply turning into television gold. (Just to clarify, I did say Channel 5, the number between 4 and 6!)

Each week two celebrities explore a member of their family's activities in the war. I missed last week's episode, but last night's edition was the best family history programme I've watched in years. It's worth explaining first of all - I absolutely hate the cult of celebrity with a passion, simply because I think anything that is deemed worthy of society these days somehow needs to have celebrity endorsement. (Quite frankly, I might be an arrogant bugger, but I have a lot more faith in my own judgement to decide what is relevant to my life than some overpaid media types spoon feeding it to me!) So I watched the first episode simply out of duty - partly because a friend, Paul Reed, was the consultant on the series (he's the military expert on Your Family Tree magazine), and partly because of a sense of duty, it being genealogy after all. Even if it was on Channel 5 (for overseas readers - this used to be considered the poor channel, showing rubbish most of the time, but it has transformed massively in recent years, and is actually as good as other mainstream channels!).

I never believed I'd be commenting on Twitter after the first episode how stunned I was that what I had just watched was television gold - Chris Tarrant's utter devotion and respect to his father, a Military Cross recipient (see his comments at, and Lisa Faulkner, whose father served with the RAF in WW2. It was a fantastic watch, and quite emotional - I've never really been a Chris Tarrant fan, but this was an honest man reacting in an honest way to his discoveries. Celebrities can be just like us when they don't act like celebrities, and have the exact same ancestral ups and downs. I missed episode 2, but will watch it later on Channel 5's online media player.

Last night though, was just an unbelievable watch. First, British politician (and former Belfast boy!) Paddy Ashdowne pursued his father's story at the start of the Second World War with the BEF. In many ways it was a well told, but perhaps somewhat pedestrian story, though representative of the stories of many from that event. He himself was a superb subject - an actual argument for the case of using 'celebrities', because when it works, it really works (my problem with WDYTYA being that on that front it is very hit and miss). I actually tweeted that he would make a great TV presenter, these politicians have to come in handy at some point, after all!

But comedian Helen Lederer's story was undoubtedly the highlight. It was utterly tragic - and I mean utterly, utterly tragic. It also had one of the most unbelievable twists at the end I've ever seen in a documentary - I'm going to get my 11 year old son to watch it tonight, because it will instantly tell him what the Nazis were about. Her Jewish grandfather Arnost fled Czechoslovakia just prior to the war, with the rest of his family remaining and suffering horrendously as all of the Jewish community did under the Nazi regime. But why he was the 'hero' in the family remained in doubt throughout - the whole story seemed to be just one massive descent into the most depressing tale possible. And then it happened. And then again. And I am not going to tell you what! Suffice to say, a grandfather to be proud of, and a programme for the series and channel to be equally proud of.

War Hero in my Family is not about celebrities, it is absolutely about stories. With two stories on the go at the same time, each is well paced and breaks away from each other to provide brief moments of relief at the correct points, and actually, this series being on a commercial channel also helps, as the breaks seem to kick in at the right time, with lengthy patronising reprises upon restarting utterly avoided. This motors on at exactly the right pace. It is thoroughly well researched, beautifully directed, it's what the BBC could have made if it wasn't so obsessed with celebrity deference and patronising cliches. And these aren't Z-list celebrities if you're into quality control on that front - you will have actually heard of these people!

If you have missed the series so far - seriously, stop what you are doing, get the kettle on, make that coffee, and then turn to the Channel 5 media player at If your boss kicks up, tell him I OKed it! :) And start with episode 3...

Looking forward to next week! War Hero in my Family is on Tuesday nights at 8pm on Channel 5 (the number between 4 and 6), and Channel 5 +1 at 9pm. Also on Channel 5 HD.

UPDATE: I have now watched Episode 2 also. That's 3 for 3 - the quality is constant throughout, and the variety of tales is exquisite. This is how television should be made.


British GENES on Facebook at and Twitter @chrismpaton


  1. I must agree with your comments on this series, the 3 episodes so far have been very good. Episode 2 which you have missed manages to tie the two stories together; the breaking of Italian naval codes which were used for convoys to N. Africa and the 8th army campaign.
    What I have found interesting is discovering aspects of the world wars which I hadn't even thought about such as the RAF ground crews following the advance through Europe or the how information was gathered as revealed at the end of last nights programme.

  2. Thanks for the comments - in fact, I've just watched ep 2 on the media player, and was delighted to see it dealt with Bletchley Park - my grandfather's cousin was a WREN who worked there during the war. And I absolutely agree - it is the slightly different takes on things that makes it stand out. Glad you're enjoying it!


  3. I love all these genealogy programmes.Couldn't care less about the celebrities most of the time, I just get as interested in someone else's family history as my own. I would like to make a suggestion to all these programme makers though. Can you PLEASE make a blog or something that goes a bit more into the background of how you found the records, where you found them etc. That's what I find interesting. I'm sure you're more in touch with all these TV and media peeps than I am Chris...can you have a word in their shell like? :-)

  4. I'm sure they are all dutifully reading this blog even as I type! lol :)