The universal sticky beak

First published 13 September 2012

What makes Who Do You Think You Are such compelling viewing, do you think? 

I pondered this, wedged on the sofa between my cats, glugging wine, and gobbling up last night’s episode (the perfect Yorkshire winter night’s viewing). Leaving aside the fact that I am one of the millions researching family histories, which creates a natural interest, I think there are several things going on.

Firstly, the producers pick people whose ancestors tell a good story; every editor knows that what used to be called human interest stories when I was a journalism student are media gold.   You might be a celebrity, but if your ancestors had humdrum lives,  you won’t be invited on the programme!

Linked to this is the voyeurism factor; we love peeping into other people’s lives, via letters, diaries, photographs. We’re all what the Australians would call sticky-beaks.

Then there’s the link to a broader canvas: researching the lives of our forebears brings text-book history to life, so suddenly we’re learning more than perhaps we ever wanted to know about the first world war, or the holocaust.. And watching WDYTYA we can’t avoid the fact that sometimes unspeakably awful things really happened to people who were the family of people we feel we know (because of course the subjects are always celebrities).

Then there’s the quest narrative – the mystery…the programmes are constructed so that as people search for answers, and try to fill in the gaps in the stories of their forebears, they might make false assumptions – like the episode featuring Greg Wallace. The story of his forebears took several twists and turns before he emerged with what he accepted as the right picture. Or they might draw a complete blank.

And then of course, there’s emotion. If you watch this programme, how often do you well up?  If you research your own history, the discovery of the details of the lives of our ancestors provides several “pause for thought” moments; moments to reflect on where we’ve come from, the hardships our forebears had to endure, how little we know of what life was like 100 or more years ago … and, perhaps what shaped the people we are.

Reaching back a generation or two past those we knew – typically our grandparents – we can begin to understand, occasionally, and dimly, why our grandparents behaved or thought the way they did, because suddenly we can glimpse the influences of their pasts upon them.  And when we see this happening to our celebrities on screen, it’s very powerful. 

And finally, I suppose, the programme simply taps into the current appetite for nostalgia television.

What’s interested me in the more recent series is an increase in the celebrities doing their own on-line research. Yes, there are still the white-gloved historians, solemnly handing over documents they’ve retrieved from some archive that we mere mortals can’t access. In previous series these professionals have provoked in me a fierce researcher-envy:  “Well, it’s all right for (insert your favourite celeb) to sashay into this or that library or museum and have his/her past handed to them on a platter, without it having cost them a penny to get there”. Oh yes, tracing your family tree can be expensive.  But perhaps sensing that research envy could alienate a core audience of amateur genealogists, the producers now also show their subjects looking up such things as war records on line themselves (using the tool of the programme’s sponsors, of course!)

There’s been an exponential growth in amateur genealogy. More and more of us want to preserve our family stories for future generations, and place our family histories in the context of broader world events.  And the satisfaction of solving a family mystery, or rounding off a good story, is utterly addictive.  

I recently contacted a solicitor’s office in Leeds, on a whim, because I had discovered that they had once held some records that might help prove or disprove a theory I had about my grandmother’s cousin.  I thought the conventional family stories about him didn’t fit what I was finding via my own research. And who knew that the solicitor’s office secretary would be an amateur genealogist, too?  “No, you don’t owe us any money”, she said, handing over several fascinating old documents they’d had mouldering in their archives (she did establish my bona fides first!). “I’ve done this in my lunch hour, because I got so fascinated by him.  I love a good family mystery, me. I don’t know if I should say this, dear, but you do know he may have been illegitimate, don’t you?”  Bless her, I did; and what she gave me was absolutely fascinating –  and supported my hunch.

This is my great uncle, John Cawkell, who died at the Battle of Festubert in 1915. He was 20. Look at that face…I can’t bear it. Years ago, in my family papers I turned up a yellowing newspaper clipping announcing his death that my grandmother had tucked into a black-edged envelope, along with another envelope that contained a lock of his baby hair. The grief she must have felt as she put these two artefacts together and filed them away was palpable.  It made my own hair lift on the back of my neck, and I had to go and have a little lie down.

Right, better stop now.  I need to get back to the knotty problem of where another of my grandmother’s cousins was between the last mention of him in the 1901 census, and a letter he wrote to Nanna in 1939. There could be several reasons for his invisibility – was he ever in prison, I find myself wondering?  I’m troubled a bit by the idea that he could never have known that his sticky-beak great-niece would be grubbing about in things he may have wanted kept hidden…but I brush that aside, because I can’t bear the idea that there’s an irritating gap in the records …. 

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