Last night's edition of the BBC's Who Do You Think You Are? was in my opinion a return to form for the programme, now in its eighth series.It featured celebrated gourmand Gregg Wallace [spoiler alert!] and his rather tragic family history. I still greatly enjoy the series overall, and yet I find this merits further exploration; what is it that the viewer, and in so many cases, genealogically minded viewer, enjoys?
One of the chief reasons for the programme's success is its emotional appeal. In the case of last night's epsiode, it was the tragic nature of Wallace's ancestors culminating in his emotionally charged recreation of a fatal accident. It was not, evidently, genealogy, but it was tangible and important family history. Similarly, the visit to the former Lunatic Asylum in Exminster was atmospheric, and given the boom in popularity of converted homes from large Victorian structures, a fascinating reminder of their sometimes melancholy past. This is particulary of interest to me, as my local Reform Synagogue was once the Chapel of a lunatic asylum. Such institutions, with their sad stories, are part of Britain's architectural fabric and whether or not they can be maintained for public use, or are converted into residential dwellings, they are considerably better than their modern replacements should they demolished.
There is something too be said for the attraction of the "star" in the programme. It must be difficult for the producers to find someone who has antecedents neither too famous (Nigella Lawson and Lyons' Tea Houses, anyone?) nor indeed too dull- infamously, the TV personality Michael Parkinson was rejected by the show's makers for his supposedly limited family background. Tastes vary amongst the show's audience, but anecdotally I've noticed that some find certain actors overly theatrical in their reactions to every revelation, though many are genuinely moved by the unexpected responses from certain quarters- one of WDYTYA's delights is that it reveals not only a new genealogical, but sometimes deeper side to a well known personality.
Now for the appeal to that niche, genealogical audience. Genealogists must (though I myself refrained yesterday) be shouting at their television sets: "You're making it look too easy!", "How convenient, just opening up the ledger and finding the right record", or even "I could do all this too if the BBC paid for my numerous and extensive research costs!" These are all reasonable points and, while they might cause much frustration, shouldn't distract from what can sometimes be gleaned from the show. Actually, not much of genealogical interest was shown- the material dealt with a few generations only, the certificates were straightforward, and the relations uncomplicated. I did find it useful in that, as in the previous week's episode, it reminded us of the value of local libraries and their newspaper resources, as well as the occasional kindliness of the librarians. Contrived as such situations are it is important to remember that such places can often hold useful if unhighlighted resources.