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 …. 

Feeling Thankful – thanks to the Unthanks

First published 12 September 2012

Phew. Taking a break from obsessive Olympics and Paralympics viewing to return to my blog. In the last couple of weeks, in between gasping in awe at the feats of the world’s Olympians and Paralympians, I’ve seen some fabulous cultural offerings, all outstanding for different reasons.  

Most recently there was the astonishing York Mystery Plays, set in the Museum Gardens in York. The mediaeval cycle of plays, telling the stories from Creation to The Last Judgement, has been performed by the people of York for centuries. This production, from  York Theatre RoyalRiding Lights Theatre Company and York Museums Trust, was one of the most ambitious since the modern revival of this tradition in 1951. Created by over 1,000 local people and professionals, it showed 32 of the 48 plays, with a cast of about 250 community performers and professionals, led by Ferdinand Kingsley as God and Jesus, and former Corrie baddie Graeme Hawley as the devil. I saw the final matinee on the bank holiday weekend, and it was amazing for the sheer spectacle, the emotion and power in the performances, the ingenious, minimalist but very evocative staging, making great use of the setting among the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, and the wonderful language.  During the interval I heard some people discussing the fact that the language was difficult to understand but they were engaging with it, and because these plays were born from a tradition of storytelling that was as visual as it was linguistic, their meaning is clear, even if you weren’t brought up on bible studies. This production was adapted by York writer by Mike Kenny. Part of the vision for this production was “To create a bold, exhilarating piece of story-telling theatre on an operatic scale and to re-invigorate the tradition and the language and make these plays accessible to a modern audience”, and they succeeded in spades.  The reviews were almost all ecstatic – here’s what The Guardian had to say – and the enthisiastic momentum generated by the twitterati, piling superlative upon superlative, meant that this was pretty well a sell-out season despite the weather. 

But the GREAT news is that, if you missed it, or even if, like me, you’d like to revisit it, you can, from this evening, on the BBC/Arts Council website The Space.  But you don’t have to watch it in whatever static way it’s served up to you – you can create your own edit, from six different cameras, in a ground-breaking offering from digital partners Pilot Theatre and Kinura.  Check it out and be astonished.

Another real treat was Sweeney Todd at the Adelphi in London, a birthday present from my beloved. Bloody marvellous. Bloody and marvellous.  The production is wonderful in its own right, but was extra special for me because Sweeney Todd has always been my favourite of Sondheim’s musicals, and I know the book and the score backwards, but I’d never seen it live; I’d only ever seen the badly-videoed original – but iconic – Broadway production with Angela Lansbury.  This London production, with Michael Ball as Todd and Imelda Staunton as Mrs Lovett, was much more thoughtful and thought-provoking than that more caricatured original;  this barber and pie-maker evoked your sympathies more, even while their deeds were horrific. The performances were more subtle and the characterisation more three-dimensional.  I loved it.

And in York again a few weeks ago – where have I been all my life, that I’ve never met The Unthanks? This folk band from the north-east is fantastic!.  We were at the York Minster to see the final gig in the tour that marked their fabulous collaboration with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass band, the national champions of Great Britain.  This evening was special because of the exquisite combination of the elements – the voices and harmonies of The Unthanks, the sound of the brass, and the setting and acoustics of the Minster.  It was an inspired collaboration in that, as The Unthanks point out, brass is a very compatible vehicle for telling folk stories, the stories of working people.  Here they all are with the The King of Rome, which they performed at the BBC folk awards this year. 

I love a good brass band, me, and the stage was given over to “Briggus” for two numbers – a very accomplished contemporary piece, and then, just as I was thinking, “Well, that’s better than the Floral Dance”, what should come but … yes, well…..but not like you’ve ever heard it before.  I suppose if you have to perform it because it’s a brass band staple you might as well give it some wellie and find your own version. I had a sneaky feeling they were sending it up, with all those flourishes and all that showing off, but they seemed to be enjoying it and the audience had a ball.  But the stand-out number of the evening for me was Rachel and Becky’s a cappella rendition of a Caribbean sea shanty, which was exquisite enough in its own right but which the acoustics of the Minster, with the most astonishing reverb, turned into something that could never be recaptured in another venue or a studio.  

So I’ve had a very lovely couple of weeks, and feel very lucky.  Right, back to the Paralympics on the telly…oh, and a look at Cabinet re-shuffle, which I might post my thoughts on later

Sculpture…hanging on

First published 4 July 2012

You know how experiences come in batches?  There’s a name for it, but I can’t bring it to mind at present.  Perhaps it’s just synchronicity.  Anyway, I’ve had a bit of a sculpture week.

I read in this morning’s Guardian about one of the Cultural Olympiad events, artist Richard Wilson’s installation on Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavillion, which you can read about for yourself  here.   (Wilson also did “Turning the Place Over” in 2008, in which a large disc sawn from the side of a building rotated from the edge of it.  It was commissioned as part of Liverpool’s European Capital of Culture celebrations. ) In today’s article Wilson reflects that some people, including fellow artists, would call these works cheap spectacle rather than sculpture.  What do you think?

This past weekend we had a fabulous time at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which is a heavenly jewel here in God’s Own County, if I can be so parochial for a second.  There was almost too much to take in.  First we went to Longside to see the Anish Kapoor Flashback exhibition, the first survey of Karpoor’s work to be held in the UK outside of London.  It features some stonking pieces, some of which are from the Arts Council collection, under the arrangement whereby sculpture from the collection is displayed several times a year at YSP.  The exhibition shows his early pigment work, his exploration of voids and his work with mirrored surfaces.  It was really well displayed, with just enough pieces to keep the viewer satisfied without the over-crowding that has happened to some of Barbara Hepworth’s pieces at the Hepworth Wakefield gallery.

Then there was the Joan Miro show, the first major UK exhibition of this significant 20th century Catalan sculptor.  I’ve never really liked his work, but I think that was because I didn’t fully understand the context in which he was working.  I’m not sure I’m entirely converted aesthetically, but the exhibition has given me a new appreciation of his importance.  Some of the works are in the Underground Gallery, but many are in the astonishing landscape of the park, respecting the artist’s view that “sculpture must stand in the open air, in the middle of nature”.

And if all that wasn’t enough, there were still the favourite pieces in the permanent collection to visit, dotted around the park, and a few new ones to discover too.  I said about four times to the people I was with, “We are so lucky to have this, on our doorstep”.  Judging by the number of people – many families – there, hundreds of other people think so too.

And this time last week I was in Italy.  Showing a friend around the remorselessly touristy but still gorgeous San Gimignano, I came round a corner to find Anthony Gormley.  Well, not really Gormley, but then again, almost him – one of the body-cast pieces that feature in so many of his projects.  And there was another one in the next piazza – and look, another one on top of one of the towers (a bit of a Gormley signature as we’ve seen in many of his projects, notably Event Horizon in London in 2007).  I discovered later that the outdoor pieces were associated with his exhibition Vessel at the Galleria Continua which runs until 20 August. San Gimignano takes art seriously, if you look beyond the tourist shops.

So – some huge works of statement, and some smaller, more intimate works this week. Sculpture, which I confess I used to dismiss as cold and remote, has the power to amaze, move, and provoke thought.  And repel.  But that’s fine. 

And despite my reservations about  the display in one of the rooms at the Hepworth in Wakefield, it’s still an amazing space, and well worth several repeat visits.  And here in Yorkshire, if the YSP and Hepworth weren’t enough, we also have the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds.   We are indeed fortunate.  And let’s hope we can hang on to them during this time of austerity, because the public, certainly, is voting with its feet.

Stealing people’s dreams

First published June 2012

I came late to blogging.  Friends and colleagues would probably say that I’ve never been short of an opinion, but I’ve not really felt I’ve got much to say, or much authority to say it, since I left the Arts Council a couple of years ago.  Actually, I sit here reading the Guardian every day (thank God, or someone, for  the Guardian), snorting in fury at the antics of those who purport to govern us, hurling shouts of despair at the television news, and I do share things on Facebook, and tweet occasionally, so I thought it was perhaps time I joined the lay commentariat with a full-blown blog.   

Today I find myself preoccupied by a couple of issues in the education supplement of the Guardian, including one by Fiona Millar about the need for a middle layer between schools and government to drive school improvement.  Hmmm. Any guesses as to what might fill that role?   It’s already drawn quite a bit of comment on the Guardian’s website.  Check it out at

I’m not sure why I’m so exercised by what Michael Gove is doing to education.  It’s probably the time I spent at the late-lamented Creative Partnerships programme at the Arts Council. I don’t have children of my own, but I really worry about young people’s future.   At the Yorkshire regional Labour Party conference a couple of weekends ago, I asked Ed Balls, in a session on the economy, for his views on the link between education and the economy, and the need to get it right – and now.  It’s obvious that a generation of young people whose education allows them to be creative, confident and aspirational will be significant players in the economy of the future.  Ed Balls responded that when he went into schools and asked particularly switched-on heads to take him into a couple of classes that really mattered, they’d typically take him into a science class, and then they’d take him to a dance or drama session, and insist that these classes were giving young people all the skills for fulfilling careers. Ed Balls said that for political reasons, tackling Michael Gove and the mess he’s making of education is not the right thing to do just now; there are other things that have to be put right first.  But they will, they say.  

In the meantime, I’m reminded of a line from a novel by Australia’s national treasure Elizabeth Jolley.  In The Newspaper of Claremont Street, the main character Weekly, a cleaner, is upset about those who keep other people awake at night.  “Them’s stealing people’s dreams”, she says.  Well, that’s what I think Michael Gove is doing, too.

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