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.

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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
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    Comment number 41.

    Just to pick up on the comment that Isaac Bitton has no memorial, another Boxer from the same Sephardi community does ... Daniel Mendoza ... as they were in the same Profession in the same community at the same time they must surely have know each other ?

    It is on the wall of the Library at Queen Mary University of London:



    if links are permitted.

    C.

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    Comment number 42.

    I found it quite interesting although at times felt that they can 'move on with the story' as it was unfolding rather slowly... However, it was definitely educational to all looking for their roots! Will the BBC be looking for new ancestral contributions in the future?

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    Comment number 43.

    I was disappointed at the outset of June Brown's programme by the way she carelessly dismissed all her other ancestry to focus only on one line of her mother's family. Her British forebears - east-enders or otherwise - might have been as interesting as Barbara Windsor's, Jodie Kidd's or Jeremy Paxman's, but neither we nor she will ever know.

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    Comment number 44.

    I think the point others are asking about is "are the celebs paying anything towards finding out about their family history?" If not, then it would indeed be marvelous if a non-celeb person could benefit with each series. A whole load of us are limited to what research we can do from our computer and after each programme, I know I say to myself, if only!
    From: A very jealous keen amateur researcher.

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    Comment number 45.

    My enjoyment of the programme was overshadowed by the initial scenes of June at home, smoking with her grandchildren in the room - it's bad enough that June and her children seem to think that it's OK to subject their (grand)children to passive smoking, but I think it's irresponsible of the programme makers to show and and condone this behaviour that goes completely against all NHS advice and let's face it - commonsense.

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    Comment number 46.

    Loved the programme, but how I agree with seniormover. The programm makes it seem so simple and glosses over whether or not the celebs pay anything towards the cost of research.
    I registered on the forum to make exactly the same point namely that there should be at least one non celeb per series no matter what and selection shouldn't be based on whether they seem to have any "interesting" or "famous" people in their ancestry.

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    Comment number 47.

    I found this programme particularly interesting as I have sephardic roots that I have traced back to the Bevis Marks Synagogue and I suspected a connection with the one in Amsterdam.
    What I think would be most useful for all these programmes would be a list of the sources and archives visited. I would like to try and follow up some of these leads for my own family.

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    Comment number 48.

    I found this interesting when it came to the Spanish records. Having Spanish roots I was always led to believe most records where destroyed in the Spanish civil war. My father has done some research and visited the archive office in Spain shown on the programme and took me there but it was shut.


    Obviously not all records were destroyed. I agree with 'Dill's' comments above knowing about where and how could help others. We don't all have the help of WHDTYA researchers!.

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    Comment number 49.

    Tom McDonald - For you and June Brown (please let her see this).

    I was just researching for my holiday in Algarve and without looking for it found this reference to an Isaac Bitten. I wonder if she has relatives in the USA?
    Here is the link http://farojewishheritagecentre.org/FrontEng.html
    The Faro Jewish Cemetery is the only remaining vestige of the 1st post inquisition Jewish presence in Portugal! In 1984 Isaac “Ike” Bitton (native of Lisbon, then living in the USA, and sadly passed away 14 July 2006) and his brother Joseph went to Faro to visit their mother's birthplace. They found the cemetery in terrible disrepair and vowed to restore it to its former sacred glory as a memorial to the now defunct Faro Jewish community. On returning to the USA Bitton registered the Faro Cemetery Restoration Fund Inc. as a not for profit organisation. He raised funds, which he then deposited in trust with the Jewish Community of Lisbon.
    In December 1991, Judith Pinto held a small Channukah party at her apartment in Portimão, Algarve, thereby effectively relighting the flame of Judaism in Algarve and establishing the present Jewish Community of Algarve. In June 1992 Ralf and Judy Pinto and a small group visited the cemetery. Contact was made with Ike Bitton and after submission of a plan of work and estimates, Bitton instructed funds to be released to Pinto who was appointed Hon. Director of Operations. The work was completed and the cemetery was opened to tourism and the public. The entire cemetery is paved with Portuguese calçada and two large shady trees provide a serene ambience. There is a Tahara House in which bodies were washed and prayers said. This was turned into a museum.

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    Comment number 50.

    Always find it odd when people say "boring", especially when they fail to articulate why. Do they not have a very good capacity for thinking about others, rather than being pre-occupied with themselves? If nothing else, June Brown's program carried a history lesson about a persecuted race spanning several different countries and 4 centuries - how on earth can that be boring?

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    Comment number 51.

    Though very good could we have some non celebrities on the next series or maybe a series of their own as Im sure that you will find some really interesting stories

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    Comment number 52.

    I personally think it's a great program reminding people of the good and the bad in our past. Ainlsey Harriet for example seemed to be very confused about his ancestors and what to make of his family history. I did find the June Brown episode very difficult to like however. The History was fascinating. June however just annoyed me to the extant I have had to break off and will watch the rest of the program later.

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    Comment number 53.

    Found this programme extremely interesting not least because by maiden name was Bitton. I believe that there’s not a lot of Bitton’s about and wonder if there are any more reading this Blog.

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    Comment number 54.

    Is there any chance of delving in to some English family history?

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    Comment number 55.

    I watched quite a bit of the June Brown programme and I also thought it was presented in a very boring and uninteresting way-I too almost fell asleep trying to watch it.
    I have now just finished watching the JK Rowling programme and found this one very touching.I was very tearful for what Jo discovered.I too have researched my family for many years,and have gone back to 1754,and have also encountered a mass grave "Pauper" grave.This is a very painful discovery and although we know very little of these dead relatives,it still hurts to find this out.
    Just proves that a bond is still there.
    Jo,your ancesters were very brave people,they lived in a long forgotten era where you were very much alone , and had to make yourself who you are to survive.
    I really enjoyed this programme,lovely meaningful touch with her distant cousin.

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    Comment number 56.

    We found the latest story (J.K.Rowling's) the best we have seen so far. However we were told that her grandfather was one of four children: Sidney (her grandfather), Marcel, Gladys Marion and Ivy Florence.
    In the two 1911 Census forms shown on the programme, only Laurence (great grandfather), Marcel, Ivy and Sidney appeared. Gladys did not appear. In our own research we have found no entry in the 1911 Census for Gladys. It seems, however, that she survived unmarried until 1981 (ref: Ancestry.com BMD Deaths). If this latter fact is true, where was Gladys in 1911?

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    Comment number 57.

    Did anyone else see the "unchecked" document with the facts the "wrong way round"?. Jo herself will cringe when she spots it, but caught up in the excitement of the moment it's easy to see how she missed it while reading and certainly forgivable. Not so for the production team who could have used a bit of tech wizardry to alter the offending document. and asked for a voice over back here, I'm sure Jo would have been happy to correct it.
    The programmes are great to watch, and we enjoyed our 2nd viewing as you will when you spot the "WWR" but searches do create many unanswerable questions,
    perhaps that's why the advice in Titus 3:9 & 1 Tim.1:4 still applies today.

    If you're weary read them.

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    Comment number 58.

    Very disappointed with last two episodes - J K Rowling and June Brown - as they both concentrated on only one branch of the family. Surely this is NOT who we/they are, as the whole point is we are a mixture of different lines.I think it would be more interesting to get an idea of the different strands that make us up inone programme, if at all possible...

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    Comment number 59.

    Just a thought that struck me while watching the J K Rowling programme - which was fascinating by the way. From the style of the affectionate letters written by her g-grandfather to his family post 1911, I wondered if he had in fact separated from them at this time despite what appears on the Census. Perhaps he simply had an address 'in town' which was close to his workplace. I discovered a similar situation in my family history. The aunt and uncle who brought up my g-grandmother led separate lives because of his work - he was a butler for the 3rd Earl Onslow's daughter. In the 1881 Census he was registered at her address in Richmond, while his wife, who kept a lodging house in the town, was registered at that address as 'Head' - not 'Wife'. When the uncle finally retired from service, he joined his wife at her lodging house. So the brutal removal of the term 'Wife' on the 1911 Census might in fact be nothing more than a bureaucratic requirement because Louis was registered elsewhere. This might explain the continuation of loving letters to his family with the possibility the marriage was still in tact until after WWI.

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    Comment number 60.

    Hi all at WDYTYA. Absoloutely love the show, it's true some are more interesting than others, but that is merely personal taste. Where some will find stories dull and uninteresting, others will find a personal connection or find the history fascinating. In response to those saying that only one line is being followed, it has always been that way, right back in series one, you may recall Jeremy Clarkson researching the Kilner's, this was his mothers line, there was only a fleeting mention of his father's family in Tick Hill, Yorkshire. One of my favourite episodes is Alistair McGowan's is because our histories are very similar.

    To those who are saying about the celebrities paying for research, I do not see this as necessary. They should not pay for this, they whole point is that it is a programme for us to enjoy we don't expect other people to pay to be on shows, I think this is a silly line of argument.

    The great thing about this show is that it doesn't matter if you are a fan of the celebrity or whether you even really know who they are they are just the vehicle for the stories of history to be told.

    I am researching my history at the moment, in fact I've been doing it for 20 years, ever since a project at school inspired me. I would urge you all to have a go, at least write down as much as you know for future generations. But a warning, if you start, you may not be able to stop, it's a very addictive hobby!

    Oh and finally, because I've gone on way too long!, in the episode with Jo Rowling, she discovered that a family rumour was untrue and I think it was great for the makers to show her discovering that the Louis Volant who won the Legion d'honeur was not her ancestor, so oftern you can get caught up in a story and then discover it was a red herring, so well done for showing that, all part of the joys of genealogy. Keep up the good work, I have never and will never miss an episode.

 

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