Who Do You Think You Are? : June Brown
Tonight was the first episode of Series Eight of WDYTYA?, about June Brown. I see from a quick Google search that this has been heavily previewed in various newspapers over the past few days, but the only coverage I’d actually read was in Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine, Britain’s most cumbersomely-titled genealogy mag.
Quick first impressions before I go to bed:
1. There are a few more women as featured celebrities in this series (Series Seven had only one female subject, Dervla Kirwan, out of nine episodes!), but not many: four out of ten. Still not great. Of course, they can’t just select whoever they want; the genealogy has to back it up. But would the longlist ever be such that they could end up with a nine-episode series of which only one featured a man at the centre? Hmm. This sort of thing is of course an issue in almost everything on TV, although in the case of WDYTYA? it’s also relevant to consider how the programme content balances out in terms of inclusive coverage of male and female ancestors. This is, after all, an area where the wider genealogy community has historically struggled somewhat – in acknowledging the significance of (or bothering to take the time to research) women generally.
2. On that latter point, this episode wasn’t bad given what records they had to work with. Brown made a point of asking about women here and there; archivists would show her records of a father and she’d say “and who’s the mother?”, etc. (in that instance I think the answer was along the lines of “we don’t know”, but at least the question didn’t get cut). She followed up the story of her 3x great-grandmother Rachel in some detail, no doubt guided by producers but still seeming genuinely engaged, and discussed her in terms that made it obvious she’d spent significant time thinking about her life and identifying with some of her experiences (losing a child, widowhood). Overall, though, Rachel’s the only female ancestor from the programme whose name I recall, whereas there were at least five or six men separately identified by name and discussed in a bit of depth. Hey ho. It did seem as if information was pretty thin on the ground, with a lot of the episode dedicated to historical context.
3. No matter how many times you hear about Jewish communities being treated appallingly in some hitherto unfamiliar historical moment (here, their wholesale expulsion from the Algerian city of Oran in the 1600s to further the political interests of a fat-faced marquis whose name I forget), it remains profoundly shocking. WDYTYA? always seems to drive home the awfulness of these (and other similarly remote but important) situations really well, with a killer combination of good original documents and well-chosen experts to interpret them with appealingly self-effacing attitudes and unmistakeable skill. They usually do this in quietly attractive surroundings, with atmospheric but unobtrusive background activity and gentle breezes lifting strands of the hair of the celeb and the expert as they bend over the document in question. There are a lot of highly effective pauses. It always has me riveted, and I always end up discussing these scenes with my mum the next day.
Right, that’s it, for what it’s worth – not an actual review, just a bit of acknowledgement of the programme from which I nicked my blog title. Next week: JK Rowling.