Thursday, 8 August 2013

Current family history programmes on TV - review

(The following is updated - I forgot about Una Stubbs episode of WDYTYA!)

There's a couple of family history themed programmes on the box just now, with varying degrees of success.

Family Tree, the BBC/HBO comedy, is currently being transmitted on Tuesday nights at 10pm, BBC2. The first episode was very much a pilot type affair (see my review at, which was high on promise and short on laughs. The second episode, was a much funnier edition, as Chris O' Dowd's character, Tom Chadwick, discovered his great grandfather to have once been the back half a of a successful pantomime horse duo (see It was a relief to see, with a series that has a format that promises so much flexibility. Sadly, however, such promise was all too brief - since then, two more episodes have been shown, and the laughs are getting fewer and further between.

I think that the problem is with the series trying to play on both family and family history at the same time - and the family doesn't really work. A sister with a monkey puppet that voices her inner rudeness just distracts, a dad obsessing with a 70s TV comedy series sort of works, but only as a foil for Chris O'Dowd to regroup after his discoveries. The step mum from eastern Europe doesn't work in any way at all (unlike the way the Mags character in 'Lead Balloon' did), and Tom's friend, trying desperately to be David Brent in a 'that was so yesterday' type way, just irritates most of the time. How much funnier would it be if he had a friend who plays on what Tom finds, puts two and two together to get five, leads Tom up the wrong path, only for it all to come crashing down around them when the truth about a belief is discovered?

On the family history side, a lot does work - it gently digs at those of us tracing our ancestry, without patronising, and some funny situations emerge - but you can't see the wood for the trees, and sadly not family trees. I still watch for the simple reason that the one character that I think does work is Tom Chadwick himself, with a great portrayal by Chris O'Dowd. But he really is the roast potato to the rest of the comedy plate's turkey and brussels sprouts...!

Who Do You Think You Are is also back on Wednesday nights at 9pm BBC1, with three episodes now transmitted in the current series. The first two editions were about actress Una Stubbs and actor Nigel Havers' ancestry - and I was bored rigid throughout both. Nothing offended from the episodes - but nothing really floated any boats either. One week on, and all I can remember from Havers' episode was there was a mill involved in Devonshire at one point. The Una Stubbs episode did have some nice synergy - a family connection to a factory that came full circle when it tied into another line, but again, nothing really sticks.

Last night, actress Minnie Driver was featured. This was a much better edition, with two interesting aspects - the first being the story of her father in the Second World War, winning a medal for an RAF raid which ended in tragedy, with the death of a best friend and a ministry spinning his achievements for progaganda value, when in truth he was psychologically traumatised by events. Any wonder the medal was thrown into the Thames? It reminded me very much of the story featured in Clint Eastwood's film about Iwo Jima, Flags of Our Fathers, and was a welcome change from the norm, tragic as it was. The second part was a good old fashioned search for modern relatives, after the discovery of an uncle who also worked as an actor, and the eventual find of a first cousin.

One thing that did amuse last night, in that I was reading Twitter comments as it was broadcast, and one person asked why she was chasing after her dad - surely it should be about researching ancestors...?! (I didn't respond...!)

Both series can be caught up with on the BBC iPlayer (for UK residents only).


My new book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, is now available from Pen and Sword. My Scottish land and church records ebooks are available at, whilst my next Pharos Scottish course, Scottish Research Online, starts Sep 4th - see Time to smash a few brick walls...!


  1. Presumably the Una Stubbs WDYTYA episode was so boring you wiped it from your mind all together!

  2. Crikey - yes, and yes! But have amended the post...!

  3. Did you spot the error on Minnie Drivers though? On Ancestry they found the right name born in 1950 for the second cousin then in the next shot they say she is 84 so must have been born in 1930. I surmise that they found the wrong person with the right name born in 1950.

  4. Not impressed with either to be honest.

    MD programme turned into a history lesson about the RAF raid, the war etc instead of concentrating on going further back.

    The whole thrust of this programme has changed from going back through the generations to focusing on one or two individuals and then presenting a history lesson on some aspect of their life.

    Find the programmes are generally becoming boring, dull and uninteresting.

  5. Actually, the very first episode ever was mainly about Bill Oddie trying to understand his mum's mental health - I also thought Patrick Stewart trying to understand an abusive father recently was another well put together episode. I don' think episodes focussing on one individual are problematic when the story at heart is about an issue that affected one person's subsequent sense of identity - it's as valid an aspect of family history as any. Agree though that the foot seems to have been taken off the pedal a bit compared to more recent series - hopefully it will come back to form soon!

  6. I just caught up with the Minnie Driver episode of WDYTYA and thought it was a good one as there were so many sources that gave real personal detail about her father's army career - not just a case of trailing from one empty field to another and throwing in some stock footage as these episodes dealing with the World Wars can often be.

    I think it's fair to described the previous two episodes of this series as understated with no major dramatic revelations, but a fairly accurate portrayal of what many people might well find in their family history. As such they did remind me of some of the earlier series.

  7. I really, really loved this show.I would love another season!! I think there are enough characters to further develop.I hope it gets a second season. The story could easily grow and expand its plot lines with different sides of the family Family Tree.