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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    Comment number 81.

    I think this has been a really good series and am looking forward to Tracey Emin's programme. I note several people have been asking for non-celebrities to be included in the future. I seem to remember when the first series was shown each programme was followed by one on BBC3 or BBC4 dealing with an 'ordinary' person's family history. I watched a couple of them including one where a Welsh vicar discovered he was Jewish, but don't remember the name of the series. Perhaps that could be repeated in an earlier time slot or on BBC2.

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    Comment number 82.

    Watching the Len Goodman programme I was amazed to see him in Kingston Cemetary in Portsmouth - I live in Portsmouth and did not know about this Memorial to the Polish refugees. In my Ancestry family tree I have a Thomas Lepik who married in Portsmouth in 1839. I checked the Memorial plague online and found his name there. I had not known how he came to Portsmouth from Poland or why, so found your programme enlightening and a revelation. One of his grandaughters married one of my maternal grandmother's brothers.

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    Comment number 83.

    Cant wait to watch Tracy Emin! Who I would love to watch next series would be Christopher Hitchens... and his brother :) would be a incomparable homenage and interesting regardless of the outcome.

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    Comment number 84.

    Apart from June Brown's journey, I've found each new episode of this series more fascinating... Larry Lamb and his circus background, Emilia Fox and her ancestor Samson Fox (not to mention the actress sisters, the Royal College of Music and the corrugated boiler flue), Richard Madeley and his Canadian background, and this week Len Goodman and his Workhouse AND Poland connections!

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    Comment number 85.

    Usually a facinating and engrossing show, with unexpected twists, turns and emotional revelations! Would be great to see someone like Anthony Head or Suzi Perry or even someone more unusual like Siouxsie Sioux or maybe Adam Ant..

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    Comment number 86.

    Disappointed with Tracey Emin's programme - more should have revealed regarding her father's side - sounded more interesting

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    Comment number 87.

    I love this series, so interesting. Wish I had access to the researchers to help me with ours!!

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    Comment number 88.

    I would appreciate it if Tom Mc Donald contacted me as a subject for WDYTYA as most of my family are dead and I'm finding it a real struggle to re search my ancestors due to the cost etc involved.
    I would not want to travel to other countries etc so I would not be an expensive subject.
    My family are somehow involved with the Wedgwood clan and my nan's side who are french worked for the french resistance in LeTouquet and I've also just found out my mother's uncle died in the Somme.
    I think there are plenty of us "ordinary" folk who would dearly love to have our past re searched and I'm ready for that e-mail Mr Mc Donald if you should ever wish to persue my family tree. It would be a dream come true for me.
    Love the programme.

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    Comment number 89.

    what about a WDYTYA series that follows the genaral puplics family tree. i would like to do that

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    Comment number 90.

    I have spoken to many people who would like to see this program done for a deserving member of the public. My family have been trying to trace what happened to my fathers real mother . He is dying but mentally very well and would love to know what happened to her. We have ended up down blind alleyways with lots of amazing info about her father and the rest of relatives however she seems to have disappeared into thin air. Lots of family scandal, history of his grandfather linked to Horatio Bottomly and times newspaper , treaty of versailles etc. He was brought up by a step mother who pretended that his mother was dead but a story is there also as to why he was taken away from his mother. Can you help at all? Have loads of info so far but we are desparate to make my father happy and find at least a picture of his mother before he dies . He is terminally ill with Pulmonary fibrosis of unknown origin. He only stopped working at he age of 84 6 weeks ago and is a character himself and an example to all.

 

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