Thursday 18 October 2012

WDYTYA review - John Barnes

Last night's edition of Who Do You Think You Are is one of the most interesting episodes I think I've seen in a long while, though I think it would be fair to say from much of the Twitter chatter I was reading last night that people were quite divided about it. The subject was former footballer and now sports pundit John Barnes, and whilst all who viewed it seemed to think it was interesting, some found it slow and not particularly 'genealogical', but more 'political'.

In fact, it was precisely because of this that I found it so fascinating. The politics of our ancestors were as much a part of their stories as was their allegiance to a sports team, their relationship to others in their communities and more. In Scotland just now we are going through a debate about the future of our country, and whether it should separate from the UK, and there were some minor parallels with the Jamaican story of independence - not least of which a comment someone made on Twitter about the Jamaican flag containing a saltire! The Scottish and Jamaican stories were perhaps only thinly linked by the idea of a disconnection from a once mighty empire (Scotland and Jamaica had very different roles within that story after all), but where the story really resonated from my perception was within a comparison between Jamaica's struggle for independence and the modern Republic of Ireland's history. There was political agitation in WW2 in Jamaica, and the same in WW1 in Ireland; internment of political activists in Jamaica, something which certainly happened in Northern Ireland, the origins of the independence struggle coming from a socialist background and more. There were a lot of parallels, not necessarily all direct (Ireland did go down a more violent route) - but they were certainly there.

To me, what the programme showed once more was the idea that Britain, and in particular the media, is now looking back to its period of empire with just a bit more critical confidence. But whereas Jeremy Paxman's rather critical series 'Empire' recently tried to pick apart much of the empire's cohesion, to show that much of it was held together by luck and brutality as much as by any form of policy, WDYTYA last night told the story of one nation trying to shake itself free from that empire, ultimately successfully, and it did it from one family's point of view. What struck me about it was what seemed to be something of a universality of how that was achieved worldwide, and I think it is a story that many in the UK today still don't truly know about, despite it being so recent in our history.

If there is one real success about this run though, I think it might be the fact that it has broken away from the box-ticking formula of previous series. Last night's story could so easily have probably gone back and done the slavery thing, which virtually every story that ever reached the Caribbean in the past has focussed on to some degree. But just as much as the token Irish story is missing this year, the token Jewish story etc, this run feels a bit more editorially driven by the stories uncovered, and not an old menu waiting to be catered for.

It's been a largely good run, but there is one question on everyone's mind right now - what's going on with next week's now absent John Bishop story? As much as God moves in mysterious ways, so too it seems do BBC schedulers...


Scottish Research Online - 5 weeks online Pharos course, £45.99, taught by Chris Paton from 26 SEP 2012 - see
New book: It's Perthshire 1866 - there's been a murder... (from June 12th 2012)

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