Last night’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are? was an excellent example of why this series is so compelling. The actor, Hugh Quarshie (above), was in search of his roots on West Africa’s Gold Coast, modern-day Ghana. One scene had him in his ancestral village meeting the local Chief, a cousin it transpired. They exchanged civilities and once mutual respect had been established the Chief, looking impressive in his black and white robes, asked Quarshie where he lived. ‘Temple Fortune’, Quarshie replied, smiling quizzically, ‘near Golders Green. Have you visited London?’. A pause from the Chief, then: ‘Ah, yes. I live in Edgware’.
The scene was emblematic of WDYTYA. It continually establishes the many ways people are connected and it’s moving because it turns out that the whole world can be your brother – or at least distant cousin or great-grandparent. Dervla Kirwan had a Jewish great-grandfather whose life was ruined by anti-semitism in Edwardian Dublin; Rupert Penry-Jones is descended from an Indian ‘native’; Bruce Forsyth’s ancestor was a US-based gardening designer and bigamist; and Quarshie found himself establishing an affectionate relationship with cousins in flat and chilly Holland as well as in hot and humid Ghana. In previous series millionaire Jeremy Paxman found himself in tears at the fate of his workhouse-bound female ancestor, and Stephen Fry was moved to witness the still desolate site where his East European Jewish family had once lived and worked.
I have no doubt that the producers seek out this sort of exotic relationship – why not? they’re interesting – but that doesn’t make them any less valid than the more everyday ones. One finishes most programmes full of empathy, even with feelings of solidarity. In fact, it presents one of the best arguments for altruism based on universal brotherhood that I can recall. Showing is so much more effective than telling, especially when it’s edited into such compelling personal drama. I imagine it’s one of Nick Griffin’s least favourite bits of telly. Perhaps this makes it one of the most politically worthwhile programmes on today?