Thursday, 15 August 2013

Review - WDYTYA edition featuring Lesley Sharp

Wow! Tonight's episode of Who Do You Think You Are was nearly flawless, and certainly one of the bravest and most original episodes ever since the series first started.

The premise of the show was that actress Lesley Sharp had been adopted as a child, and until recent times had no interest in her birth father's side of her ancestry. This programme provided an opportunity for her to do that, and there is no doubt that the real bravery here was in the actress allowing WDYTYA to help her do that, rather than WDYTYA asking her to take part. The programme then essentially comprised of two parts - an investigation into her biological father, and specifically his motives for essentially facilitating her adoption, and then further back to a supposed great great grandfather called Charles Patient, and his role as a foster carer.

On the first half, this was beautifully handled by the production team. In the taxi, as Lesley Sharp headed towards meeting her half siblings for the first time, I turned to my wife and said "this had better be off camera", and within seconds the actress said to camera that she had asked for her first meeting to be carried out exactly like that. Cameras don't have rights to film what they want in such circumstances, only what the public agrees to, and this was handled superbly, with the siblings agreeing to go on camera after an initial meet. We had no right to be there as viewers, we merely enjoyed the privilege of access granted, so a huge thumbs up to the siblings for agreeing to what must have been an undoubtedly awkward situation for them. For those yet to watch, suffice to say that the actress had some misconceptions corrected about her father, though not all.

The story moved back after this to Sharp's great great grandmother, and a child called William born out of wedlock over a hundred years ago, with her mum marrying a gent called Charles Patient shortly after. If there was  flaw with the programme it was this - a point was made that William may not have been Charles' son, and yet unless I missed it, this was glossed over subsequently when on each occasion thereafter Charles was referred to as her two times great grandfather. That was a question still to be resolved, but it was not addressed further. There were a few ways that this could might been tackled - not least the possibility of a DNA test from a descendant of William and of one of Charles many other sons, if there were two male lines of descent, to see if they had matching Y-DNA profiles. That irritated - not the fact that this was not considered, just in the Janet and John commentary on the matter assuming we'd just forget about it.

However, what the programme did do was something that I don't think that it has done before. It bravely stepped away from genealogy - the physical connection by bloodlines between folks - and very much into family history - the circumstances, including our genealogical heritage, that make us who we are. The second half of the programme therefore looked at the circumstances of two foster children raised by Charles, one of whom was found to later emigrate to Canada. Whether Charles was a biological ancestor of Lesley Sharp may not have been resolved - at least in what was shown in the programme - but he was certainly a major factor in raising William. The genius of this episode was in showing what a major factor he was also in someone else's life, someone who wasn't raised as a blood relative, but as a foster brother. Family history is about more than just blood, and this beautifully illustrated just how infinite the options within our research can be into our ancestors if we just think to ask the right questions about who they were, rather than just who their biological connections may have been.

Again, I find any episode of WDYTYA to work best when there is a genuine question about the participant's  identity to be resolved, or at least addressed. Lesley Sharp had some deeply personal issues about her adoption to address - it was a privilege for us to be allowed to tag along for the ride.

And by the way, if you missed this week's Family Tree comedy on BBC2, check it out on BBC iPlayer - it crossed the Atlantic and got funny this week! WDYTYA is also available on the Player for UK based residents.

UPDATE: see comment below!


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. Chris,

    From what I can see Lesley's descent is not through William (Bush) Patient, but his 'brother' Thomas (b.1853). Then through his son Thomas Charles (b.1880), to Norman (b.1909).

    Agree the programme didn't make this clear, but Charles Patient was indeed Lesley's GG Grandfather.

  2. Interesting - will have to watch again!

  3. I've tried to get on the wavelength with 'Family Tree' but it's just not working for me. Even though I do get that the writer is mocking stereotypes in the geni world and their fondly held views/habits, the humour is very forced and why on earth cast a ventriloquist and her monkey puppet as a sister who happens to be unable to function without using ventriloquism via her monkey puppet?

  4. Had another look at WDYTYA - and Thomas as great grandfather is mentioned, but it's a real blink and you miss it moment - never referred to again in the programme. But at least makes a bit more sense now!