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 21.

    I found it fascinating as I can trace my Sephardic Jewish family back to Amsterdam. It made we want to find out more!

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    Comment number 22.

    BBC. Thank you very much for this episode with June Brown. (As I live in Amsterdam - and beeing familiar with the city archive Stadsarchief - it was extra special.) What a remarkeble family history June has. It was very mooving to see June at the cemetery with a sunflower, a photograph and a small stone to pay her respect.

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    Comment number 23.

    A wonderful programme to this first of the new series. What a fabulous lady June Brown is, she so reminds me of my dear friend Angela, her personality, she even looks like her.!

    I am also surprised that anyone could find this first episode boring, it was an interesting geneology of June Brown's roots, along with the insight into the aspect of the Jewish History.

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    Comment number 24.

    An interesting blog entry, especially as I've supplied information for one of the programmes. I can't wait to see what it reveals!

    I'd be fascinated to know more about the production process once the series is cast and how you balance the subject's interests with the more interesting parts of their family history which might make a better programme.

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    Comment number 25.

    Just watched the first episode of the new series of WDYTUA and while it wasn't the MOST riveting episode I've ever seen, it was still very good and quite touching. Amidst the sadness and trauma of the riots on our streets at the moment, I found I could actually lose myself for an hour whilst watching which was very welcome! It is SO good to have this programme on our screens again! As the familiar music began, I sat down to watch with a nice cup of tea and enjoyed every moment! I'm looking forward to what is to come over the series, especially Jo Rowling, Alan Carr and Richard Madeley! Thank you for such a great series! British television at it's best! xx

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    Comment number 26.

    I always enjoy this programme and agree with Sheila that perhaps the powers that be should think of researching the family history of a non-celebrity may be as some sort of competition. On one disappointing note though, I was sad to see that there were no histories of people from the caribbean being researched, particularly Grenada as I have hit a brick wall in my investigations.

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    Comment number 27.

    Delighted to see June Brown's family tree being researched - she bears such a strikingly strong resemblance to older generation female Italian and English Clerkenwell/ Hoxton / East End family members that we'd been half-joking for years that she must be related and personally hoping her tree would be researched. So, interested to hear that she does have Italian blood as well as. London truly is a melting pot: a fascinating start to the new series.

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    Comment number 28.

    This is my favourite programme so it's great to be at the start of another series! Found the June Brown story very interesting and moving - but just one grouse - why so many shots of June's hand holding a cigarette, and even a shot of the smoke. As someone who is badly affected by cigarette smoke I almost felt ill by the end! This is another example of "Clever -Dick" camera work which can cause annoyance on otherwise brilliant documentaries. Please don't go down that line W.D.Y.T.Y.A!

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    Comment number 29.

    The most upsetting edition of Who Do You Think You Are I watched, was the one featuring Jerry Springer who found out that his relatives were butchered by the Nazis during WWII! I will admit to crying during that episode! Jerry Springer is an absolute legend for doing the programme knowing that it might uncover some really upsetting facts about what happened to his family during those dark years of the War. Thank you BBC for making a series that I really enjoy watching. I watched last nights episode featuring June Brown and loved it. Isn't about time that she became Dame June Brown?

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    Comment number 30.

    I found this to be the weakest episode so far. Probably because the search was confined to one distant relative. However, it was interesting to hear of history from other perspectives; the Dutch and the 'Fourth English War' and the Spanish and their their large Empire! Inaccurate information given about bare fist boxing which, according to the bbc documentary I saw, was safer than gloved boxing which does cause brain damage; and emotional in that the fights were described 'until one man could not stand up'; exactly so and therefore a fighter could quit at any time unlike a fixed number of rounds. Notice the boxers signature at his wedding, beautiful writing and he had been fighting for several years.

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    Comment number 31.

    The program was very informative - it's fascinating to see just how far records go back if you have the resources to find them. June was too "actressy" for me to feel any sympathy for her. And what on EARTH were all the close-ups of cigarettes about? They were distracting, pointless and, to a non-smoker like me, quite disgusting. I just hope the next "star" of the program doesn't have a toenail fetish or something!

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    Comment number 32.

    I found June Brown's story very interesting. I too have Jewish ancestry from the east end of London but don't know how to trace them as my Jewish great grandfather changed his name. My grandmother was only told when her father was on his deathbed. The name was not told to the rest of the family. He became an accountant and married an Irish music hall actress who was a close friend of Charlie Chaplin's mother. Can anyone suggest how I can trace the name if I only have the new name?

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    Comment number 33.

    I stopped watching these programmes, because (in typical celeb culture ways) we had celebs with one interesting story within four generations, which was dresed up as a defining moment in their life. These are limited and so become repetitive - and how many times do we have to have Jews in the Holocaust (it smacks of bias, esp given the number of other Holocaust programmes). Most people like myself have several interesting stories (I have an Alistair McGowan tale, ancestors meeting in far off places and a fe willegitimacies myself), so a "big celeb" moment rather palls.

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    Comment number 34.

    I want to add my voice to those who really enjoyed this programme. Despite the comments in today's Guardian TV Review - I found the research behind this programme to be excellent, and I support the idea that the programmes should take the story back to the seventeenth century - if the evidence is there. Similarly I don't have a problem with only pursuing one specific line of ancestry. Please don't be put off by the negative comments flying around!!

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    Comment number 35.

    I really enjoyed this programme - in fact, I would have liked the programme to go on tracing June's family back as far as possible, not just stopping with their being dumped in Livorno! How did they get to Oran? Where from?? As for the criticisms of June's smoking - everyone knows she smokes as much as she does. if it was so upsetting (for reasons with escape me, unless your tv sets have smellovision!) why not just turn off?? I thought June was lovely - and the segment with her sitting in the graveyard in Amsterdam with the sunflower, picture and little stone, talking to Rachel, were really touching.

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    Comment number 36.

    And yes, if you want to do a non-celeb programme, I volunteer! Have already found a few freedom fighters and a bigamist in my tree, and would love to find more!

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    Comment number 37.

    I loved this eposode! To think that June could find her family through all these international documents!

    Wel done BBC Keep it up WDYTYA !

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    I just wanted to thank everyone for all the comments they've made about last night's episode of Who Do You Think You Are? It's really great to hear what everyone thought of the first series; and especially gratifying to see how appreciate some people were of the quite complex history in this film.

    Many of you have commented on how far back the film went into June's ancestors - it's certainly the further back of any of the WDYTYA's that I've executive produced over the past two series.

    A number of posts mentioned that we only explored June's maternal line. This won't be the case for every episode. In some cases, we'll be exploring both the maternal and paternal sides and in others we'll focus on just one line. Next week, we have JK Rowling's very personal film on screen - the film focuses on her maternal great grandfather and her maternal great great grandmother - so much less further back than June's ancestry. It will be interesting to hear what people think of it. In three weeks, we focus on a single generation as Larry Lamb goes in search of his mother's biological parents - she was adopted as a baby. WDYTYA comes in all shapes and sizes and it's that variety, I think.

    In response to particular comments:-

    PenneyB (#2) - Julia Sawalha's WDYTYA traced her Huguenot ancestry way back in Series 3 ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/whodoyouthinkyouare/past-stories/julia-sawalha.shtml )

    liquidpetroleumjazz (#6) - please contact me via the Wall To Wall production company website so you can give me more info

    Esther (#26) and Sheila (#17) - a number of people mentioned how much they'd like to see a non-celebrity journey on WDYTYA. I've always really believed that we DO follow ordinary people. WDYTYA proves that celebrities and public faces are just like us, each with their own (often humble) origins. You can start searching your own ancestry at www.ancestry.co.uk or www.findmypast.co.uk. It’s amazing how many records are now online.

    DHMBA (#33) - June's film doesn't feature the Holocaust at all, which I think some of the other people who've posted have found refreshing for a Jewish story.

    Kim24 (#14) - June's film is repeated tonight at 8pm on BBC One HD and is available on the I-player.

    I really hope you are looking forward to the forthcoming episodes in the run and thanks again for all your comments.



  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    I love this programme and look forward to it every year, can't wait to see the rest of the series. Here's the moan - Luckily I had recorded this episode because I had to fast forward several times to avoid being instructed on the torture, complete with pictures, of the Spanish Inquisition. Why, oh why, does the BBC think I want to know or see the details of this? Suffice to say 'Spanish Inquisition' if I want to know the gory details there are many ways to access this information without it being shoved into my face on a TV programme. I hated history at school due to a sadistic teacher who took great pleasure in describing torture and death, too much information!

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    Comment number 40.

    I realise this programme did not include the Holocaust - I was talking generally about why I stopped watching the series in general. In fact, I nearly watched this programme given how far it went back and being Jewish, but not Holocaust - but I have just had enough of the celeb culture.


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