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

    Comment number 61.

    Ho Hum, Seb Coe's WDYTYA, yet again had to turn off due to information about ill treatment of slaves and graffic pictures of slaves being burned at the stake. That's two out of three programmes that I have been unable to watch completely. BBC what are you up to? As stated in my previous post, if I want to know the gory details there are many ways I can access this information - please stop shoving it in my face on what used to be my fav programme.

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    Comment number 62.

    In the programme on J K Rowling, she became upset because a census form had an entry for an ancestor changed from "wife" to "head." She was rather upset because she assumed this to mean that husband and wife were separated. I am surprised that nobody on the production team corrected her. All that entry means is that, at the time of the census, the couple were in separate locations.

    I have a similar case in my family where an 8-year-old boy had been entered as "son" but later changed to "head." He was living in Wimbledon with his 3-year-old sister and 11-month-old brother. The relationship to the head of the family in their cases was "daughter" and "son." The only adult was a 20-year-old servant. His parents were staying in Twickenham with his father's widowed mother.

    Although the heading on the census form is "relation to head of family," my impression is that the head is often taken as head of the household rather than the family.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    well i have to congratulate the entire WDYTYA team once again a crackin job!! i am thoroughly enjoying the new series as i have with all previous episodes. I find it completely absorbing and also empathise with all the celebrities as their stories are unveiled. Gosh my dream job working with you guys but sadly that will never be so i am happy to sit back, kick back and appreciate all your hard work instead. Many thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Just watched the program on Larry Lamb. It was so good, I dont think Ive watched something so enjoyable for a long time. Thank you!

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    Comment number 65.

    I too watched Larry Lamb and I think he may have missed something.

    When examining the 1911 Census they focussed on Albert Day aged 15 at the time, when in fact there was another Albert Day on the census page they were looking at, who was the son of the uncle he was staying with. This other Albert Day was 10 at the time.

    Given that Albert Day was apparently 24 when he married Larry's Grandmother in 1925, it seemed to me that they should have been following the younger Albert Day, which would have led to a completely different outcome to the grandfather's line of enquiry.


  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Re comment made about 1911 census....no i don't think they missed it at all because in 1901, Larry's grandfather was 4 years old therefore he couldn't have been 10 in 1911. Remember they had his birth certificate so they knew when he was born and who his father was. It is confusing sometimes as in those days so many families used generations of names rather than now where anything goes therefore the temptation to jump to conclusion is always tempting when doing family research which is why it always pays to double and sometimes treble check references....as they did on the programme.

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    Comment number 67.

    I really found Larry Lamb,s very interesting,especilly as his mum had been Adopted,i was Adopted and i have desperately been trying to trace my roots,i,ts not easy and he hit the nail on the head when he said there is part of him missing,thats how i feel.you never feel complete.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.


    The point I'm making (I think) is similar to the one you are making i.e. They had the birth certificate of an Albert Day and were therefore looking for that Albert Day.

    Of course the Albert Day aged 4 in 1901 could not be the same as the Albert Day who was 10 in 1911. It is equally true to say that he could not be the Albert Day as the one who was 24 in the marriage of 1925. The point is that the Albert Day who was 10 in 1911 could have been.

    It may be that the 1925 marriage certificate showed the wrong age, but it wasn't made clear in the programme that the Albert Day who was 10 in 1911 coincidentally appeared to be the right age to fit those particular facts.

    I'm just raising the question really to see whether there is any possibility that they may have picked on the wrong Albert Day and ignored the possibility that it might be the other one if you see what I mean.

    I know they have researchers and they do a lot more than what we see, but, mistakes and incorrect assumptions do happen.

    It would be interesting to learn from the programme maker why the age discrepancy is there and how they know the other Albert Day was not the man they're after.


  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I have watched all WDYTYA since day one, but I just have to say my favourite to date is Larry Lamb's. I thought it was a wonderful for his mother, who is now in her 80's, to find that she had a brother and he a sister after living all their lives thinking they were an only child. I hope they have a wonderful celebration on meeting for the first time. Thankyou BBC for bringing these 2 people together after a lifetime apart.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    WDYTYA is either excellent or slightly boring/tedious, and this seriers is turning out to be excellent. If Tom McDonald is looking around for celebrities for a future series may I suggest Lucy Mecklenburgh of TOWIE fame - hers is fascinating family with a long history - and strangely Essex does feature quite a bit!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I do wish the researchers would get their facts correct, Emilia Fox's, Samson Fox was interested in Water gas. It is a mixture of Hydrogen and Carbon Monoxide and is poisonous. It is made by passing steam over red hot coke and most likely was only semi water gas using a mixture of steam and air to keep the temperature up. This would contain more CO. What he invented was a boiler fire tube, not a furnace flue

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    I loved last nights programme with Emillia Fox she was so natural and I loved the aunties down in Cornwall. It was very interesting and kept my attention all the way through, It was the best one so far. Brilliant and well done everyone!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I have allways wanted to start my family tree but dont know haw to get started. I have just started watching this series of hdytya and its brilliant wished i seen the other series.
    I have enjoyed all of the episodes so far i perticularly enjoyed jk rowlands episode i enjoyed it that much i watched it again with my partner.
    I hope the rest of the program is as good as the start and i will be continuing to watch the rest of the series and meany more to come.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I watched Emilia Fox's history on 'Who Do You Think You Are' with great interest as my great grandmother was the Cook at Grove House, Harrogate , when Samson Fox and his family, Emilia's ancestor lived there. I have a photo album containing photos of the Fox Family as well as their servants and would be very happy to let her have copies of these if she would like to contact me.

    I have visited Grove House, now owned by a charitable organisation and have asked them to pass on my contact details to Emilia's father as he visits Grove House, now and again. The Fox family are clearly interested in their ancestry, but have not contacted me via this means. I am not sure how else to contact them.

    'Who Do You Think You Are? ' is a great show. There is only one downside to it - it gives the impression that tracing a family tree is easy and of course sometimes it takes years to find out one little fact. Fun to watch though and always interesting. Well done BBC !

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    This programme has become so dull; little more than a mawkish celebrity soul-search. Is there no research budget to go back further then 100/150 years? That tells us very little about the personal family histories of the subjects or our nation's history. I wouldn't have thought it possible to destroy this programme from within, so well done BBC OxBridge geeks, you've dumbed down and trashed something else to make it unwatchable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Absolutly facinating, particularly that of Emelia Fox.
    I have a history which would CHALLANGE the researchers, goes back to a poor little Sicilian boy who ended up retiring to Monaco with plenty of story in between. War, Desertion, flight, resettlement. new life, family , wealth.
    But it draws a blank in Sicily.
    Perhaps some ordinary peoples stories mixed with the celebs ones ???

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Out of the series Richard Madely has proved to be just so interesting!
    tracing his family back to the New World 1630 ish! wow!
    and had time permitted there was indeed another link!
    to go back evan further
    please BBC another time? as this was most interesting!
    would have loved another hour with Richards geneaology!
    well done BBC and Richard!
    great survival genes!
    Lucky chap !
    and even luckier Judy and family!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I absolutly love WDYTYA It's really interesting finding out about the celebreties this year has been great as always I have enjoyed them all so far Richard Madley went back 100 of years.I can't wait to see who will be next year I cannot praise this programme

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    Comment number 79.

    Genealogy is one of the most interesting and revealing journeys around.I started twenty years ago at the Irish genealogical society,london.Even with new information with respect to our late mother from the Mercy congregational archives,it's still not possible to find any record of her birth or parents.We have had, what proved to be,a very destructive family tradition story-that our mother was an illegitimate grand daughter of Eamonn De valera,and was born as a result of a catholic priest raping a handicapped jewish woman in a home in Ireland.With the lack of facts available-I have recently recieved the school records from the mercy congregational archives-Dublin,it was nearly impossible to refute these legends and myth's.Our mother spent most of her life as a genuine Christian, hiding a secret Jewish identity that appears to have been false, and concieved with a political agenda to discredit De valera.Our family has no arguement with the mercy Organization,or the De valera family,the nuns that taught our mother we're doing their best under often very difficult circumstances.I have spent twenty years trying to penetrate the mystery of our mothers origins and her parents.This might make an interesting who do you think you are-It would certainly contribute in the long run, to better Anglo-Irish relations, given the fraught nature of our family tree.The mercy congregation are open to a programme on the subject,and it would be one less thing for people to argue about with respect to the Peace process. What do you think?Kind regards,patrick buckley.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    So I'm a cousin of Len Goodman. Who'd have thought it? My grandma and his Grandpa were siblings. It is amazing where genealogy can take you.


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