Who Do You Think You Are: Researching celebrities' family histories

Wednesday 10 August 2011, 13:55

Tom McDonald Tom McDonald Executive Producer

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The most exciting time for me on Who Do You Think You Are? is always the last days in the run up to transmission of the first episode. This year's 10-part series has taken over a year to make, so being able to see the finishing line is a moment to cherish and enjoy.

As the executive producer on the series, I'm responsible for every aspect of the production - from liaising with the celebrities taking part, to overseeing the research for each episode, to approving scripts, to viewing the programmes as they're being put together in an edit suite.

The great thing about WDYTYA is that every episode is completely different - and when we start researching stories, we literally have no idea what we might unearth.

JK Rowling

JK Rowling, who features in the second episode of Who Do You Think You Are?

In fact, it's finding a crucial document or a fantastic eyewitness that makes the job as brilliant as it is.

WDYTYA is now in its eighth series so this year we were determined to make the casting feel fresh and new. I'm hugely proud of this year's line-up and hope you're all excited about some of the names coming up over the next 10 weeks.

I'm really pleased to have our very first artist, Tracey Emin, and our first author - probably the most successful living author in the world, JK Rowling - for this year's series.

And the rest of the cast is a roll call of familiar names, whether that's because of the music they've made, like Robin Gibb from The Bee Gees, or because of their performances on some of the BBC's biggest shows, like Len Goodman from Strictly Come Dancing, and Emilia Fox.

Casting the series is always a really exciting part of the process. We're exceptionally lucky that lots of people really want to explore their family history - and often people come to us with something particular they'd like to discover.

The hard part comes when the research begins.

Before we commit to making an episode with a particular celebrity, we do around three months of dedicated research - first building their family tree, then trying to get all the documents available relating to their ancestors.

This is a painstaking task, which often leads to dead ends and brick walls.

Sometimes, we're extremely lucky - a vital clue will simply fall into our hands. But in some cases we have to make the difficult decision to stop the research and let the celebrity know that we won't be able to make the programme.

Of course, we provide them with all the research we've accumulated - but as far as the series goes, that's the end of the story.

This means for a run of 10 episodes, we research around 30 people.

This year's series launches with June Brown - a British television icon, but also the oldest person to take part in the series.

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June Brown talks about her life, career and family

I have to say, though, that at 84 June has remarkable energy, boundless goodwill and a really naughty sense of humour.

Usually, the participants go on the journey alone, with just the crew and the director for company. June was accompanied by one of her daughters, so it really was a family adventure.

June's journey takes her from London to Holland to Spain - and she never flagged. I think she was fortified by her cigarettes - she smokes almost as many as her character Dot Branning in EastEnders.

WDYTYA can be very emotional for the celebrities taking part.

Emilia Fox was eight months pregnant when we filmed her episode and we knew that one of the stories she would encounter involved a stillbirth for one of her ancestors. We were hugely aware of how emotional - and difficult - this might be for Emilia.

Though we don't reveal anything about what's coming up to those taking part, we do always warn everyone that history has a habit of taking surprising twists and turns - and that they might not always like what they find.

The directors on the series are all hugely experienced and are especially good at dealing with these very raw situations. We never shy away from an emotional reaction, but we always make sure it's not mawkish or sensationalised.

There is a major revelation in JK Rowling's film, which could have caused her and her family considerable discomfort.

I discussed this particular revelation - and the way in which it would be revealed to Jo - with the director and series producer many, many times in the months leading up to filming.

We decided in the end that it had to be as real as possible - after all, it's Jo's journey and not ours.

We're really proud of the resulting scene, and the rest of the film, so it would be great to hear what everyone else thinks. It's certainly a heart-stopping moment and one I'll always remember from my time on the series.

Perhaps the most difficult experience I've had on the series was during last year's run when our research team discovered that Alan Cumming's maternal grandfather had accidentally killed himself playing a game of Russian Roulette.

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Alan Cumming discusses his maternal grandfather

Alan's family weren't aware of this - knowing only that he'd died in a "shooting incident".

We, as a team, felt an enormous responsibility to Alan and his mum, but we also knew that they really wanted to know the truth.

The moment of discovery for Alan was, I think, hugely shocking, disturbing and upsetting - but ultimately brought his family the knowledge they'd desperately craved.

Liz Dobson, who directed both Alan and Kim Catrall's WDYTYA, did a remarkable job. It could easily have been a very sensationalist film - but it's actually a celebration of Alan's grandfather's life.

Luckily, it's not always tears and tragedy. It's fantastic to feature stories of great triumph and heroism.

Larry Lamb's film this year is very special to me as we managed to unite Larry with a relative he never knew he had - on the other side of the world - and there's real humour in this year's series too.

Alan Carr brings a fantastic sense of fun to his episode - even when there's bad news, he just keeps laughing.

So, with 10 extraordinary stories which cover four centuries, three continents and a year of research, filming and editing, I can't wait to hear what you make of the new series - and for everyone to discover the secrets and revelations that we've had to keep to ourselves for the past year.

Tom McDonald is the executive producer of Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are? is on BBC One and BBC One HD at 9pm on Wednesday, 10 August. For further programme times, please visit the upcoming episodes page.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I was so looking forward to the new series but what a disappointment! I was so bored I kept falling asleep. No disrespect to June Brown, but not a particularly interesting story. Hopefully the rest of the series will be better.

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    Comment number 2.

    Having East End roots, I enjoyed the programme especially delving into the migration of her Jewish roots.
    Has WDYTYA looked into anyone with Huguenot ancestry yet? If not, is it something that might feature in the future? I have just discovered my Huguenot roots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    I disagree. I found it very interesting, showing as it did, what hard times some of our distant relatives suffered. We have a lot to be grateful for today!

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Sorry Tallulah60 I have to disagree, I found the history side of June Brown's story amazing. I love all the shows good and not so good because having been doing my own ancestry, which I am obviously finding harder than the people on the show, I understand the difficulty in doing this but I have picked up some great tips from the shows over the years.

    Well done keep up the good work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Unfortunately, I must agree with tallulah60's comments. One of the most uninteresting Who Do You Think You Are I've seen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I really enjoyed the programme; this is an area of particular interest to me. I'd be very keen to get hold of a copy for teaching purposes (not for profit!). Is there a way I can do that, please?

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    I found June's history very interesting because I am Sephardi and have traced my family back to Portugal in the year 1690. This programme has given me information on how to do more work.

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    Comment number 8.

    June is obviously a lovely lady,but this was not the most riveting wdytya

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    Comment number 9.

    What a brilliant first episode to start the new series! I have been researching my own family tree and always find WDYTYA very interesting. I thought June Brown came across very well and the episode has inspired me to do some more research of my own.

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    Comment number 10.

    I thought it was very interesting that the family could be tracked back so far across so many countries as the Jews have such good records unlike in England where it is very difficult to go back beyond 1800 as I have found. One thing I would like to know is how come Jews were accepted into Italy, where the head of the Christian community, the Pope, rules yet expelled from Spain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    How can you think the Jewish history of over 200 years, setting the scene for the holocaust boring? An excellent programme with good historical records, well done. I look forward to the rest of the series.

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    Comment number 12.

    Excellent start to the series , thought it was amazing getting back so so many years. June Brown at 84 years old cant beat that. Excellent story and would love to have you and your research team sat at my house working it all out. Superb. If you have any advice for getting info from ireland in 1810/1820 it would be great as I have hit a big wall.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    A really interesting Programme. The movement of her family was fascinating and sad. What the human race does in the name of religion is appalling. Thank you and I shall look forward to the next one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I love this this programme so much I have literally been sobbing at some of the stories. I missed the beginning of tonights programme picked it up from Holland would love to see all of it is it repeated on bbc2 at all? broadbandwidth is not good enough for i player!!
    PENNEYB seem to recall maybe Davina Mcall or Nigella Lawson had Huguenot roots

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I think the program is good viewing i have been trying to trace my family roots but find it very confusing as my parents came from Dublin in Ireland but i was told there is also Italian, and Welch and would like some help myself wish they would do a program for the normal person. I would like to know what is the cost to the celeb????

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    Comment number 16.

    June Brown said at the beginning that she would like to see if she was a real Eastender but this was never referred to again.
    I live in Amsterdam and found myself looking at shots of the city more than listening to the story. It was a little disappointing but I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

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    Comment number 17.

    I really enjoy watching and have never missed a program, but have always thought that at the end of each series a competition could be held for one of the viewers to have their own family tree researched, which could be shown at the end of the following series.
    I think this could prove quite popular.
    Is there any chance it could be discussed with the powers that be?

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    What an interesting programme! It is amazing to discover your roots however humble, and I loved the way June sensed that her feelings about certain things may well have derived from the experiences of her ancestors. She must be really proud of her family history. There have been several Jewish celebs on WDYTYA but this one showed some fantastic original documents and went so far back in time. The synagogue was beautiful. I am looking forward very much to the rest of the series.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Add your commentI'm surprised a couple of people found June's story boring; I was really interested to see about the family history of Sephardic Jews, who (being less numerous in the UK) have been much less well-covered than Ashkenazim. I guess it just goes to show we all find different things interesting. And it was heartwarming to see a Jewish history that thankfully didn't end up in murder at the hands of the Nazis.

    A really good episode and I'm very much looking forward to the rest of the season, particularly to find out the intriguing secret coming up from JK Rowling's episode.

    WDYTYA made me realise that actually I am interested in my ancestors' life stories. Yet another reason I'm proud of "the unique way the BBC's funded" :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I too am surprised that anyone could find this episode boring. It was a fascinating exploration of one aspect of Jewish history as well as June Brown's roots. How I would love to have my Jewish mother's East End family's origins from Russia and Roumania explored in a similar manner. Sadly, however, I am no celebrity! A great programme......thank you!


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