TV producers love crying celebrities. Whether it’s Halle Berry at the Oscars or Cheryl Tweedy on Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, famous tears are ratings gold. If they could broadcast a show where Gazza was forced to chop onions while watching Terms of Endearment, they would. And you’d watch. You’d demand looping gifs, follow-ups and escalations involving kittens. Sadly, they can’t do that. So they have to think of less obvious ways to jerk the tears. And Who Do You Think You Are? is a prime example of that.
The premise is simple: get a famous person, with the help of local historians and genealogists, to research their family history in the hope of discovering something interesting. What they mainly discover is that people born in the 19th century are dead and then use this to unashamedly pull on the heartstrings of that week’s celebrity. The show may like to sell itself as a serious historical exercise, but really it’s just an excuse to see how many consumption-prone distant relatives it takes to make JK Rowling cry.
Away from the easy tears, where the show really excels is when we are given a rare glimpse of the real human behind each week’s personality. On what other show would you get to see Rupert Everett exchange naughty jokes with his mother round her kitchen table? Or Nigella Lawson visit her grandfather’s beautiful north London home for the first time in 35 years? As well as these less obvious treats, the show has also produced many genuinely extraordinary moments, like when Larry Lamb met his long-lost American uncle and then called his mum so she could speak to the brother she never knew she had. Or when Alan Cumming found out his grandfather was killed playing a game of Russian roulette.
The show’s most extraordinary episode however, involved Danny Dyer. It was, quite simply, the most joyous hour of television in the whole of 2016. The (ahem) crowning moment came when, sitting in the choir of Westminster Abbey, Dyer unravelled a family tree going from him, in 22 steps, all the way back to King Edward III. The look of bewildered disbelief on his face as Handel’s Zadok the Priest kicks in was the unassailable pinnacle of the entire show. But, at the risk of pissing on my own Coco Pops, this was also the precise moment that it jumped the shark.
Danny Dyer’s 22x great grandfather is most definitely Edward III. But although 22 might not sound like a lot, the exponential nature of ancestry means that the medieval king is just one of millions of 22x great grandparents that Danny Dyer has. So considering that the population of England in 1400 – 23 years after Edward died – was roughly 2.5 million, it’s actually not surprising at all that he is a direct descendant. In fact, you probably are as well.
Once you go back that far, the show’s premise becomes utterly meaningless, because everyone’s family tree looks the same. When you realise that, the entire concept of genealogy seems rather pointless, because now we all know who we are: Danny Dyer’s cousin.