Alex Graham the producer of the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? was on Start the Week on Radio 4 this morning. I find the philosophy of the programme very interesting. It was created to tell an ‘alternative history of Britain’ and clearly has a levelling message: focusing on the lived experience of ordinary people; highlighting the prevalence of migration and racial mixing in Britain’s past; and showing that even today’s celebrities have humble roots. However, it is this final point that causes me (and seemingly many others) something of a problem.
Graham mentioned that the most frequent criticism he encounters is the programme’s exclusive focus on the ancestors of celebrities rather than those of ‘ordinary people’. On one level, his response to this criticism is valid: most celebrities are first-generation and so – for the purposes of a genealogy programme – are themselves ‘ordinary people’, with ‘ordinary’ family trees. This is clearly true. There is nothing special about these people’s ancestors. They are descended from same mixture of fame, infamy and obscurity as the rest of us. However, what he didn’t acknowledge was the effect the focus on celebrity has on our perceptions of history and the relationship between past and present.
Earlier in the programme Graham had highlighted that problem of seeing history as a straightforward story of linear progress; we can regress as well as progress. Yet, focusing only on people who have transcended their backgrounds seems – probably unintentionally – to reinforce exactly that idea of progress. As Deborah Cohen, one of the other guests on Start the Week, commented, modern celebrity represents the ‘most distilled form of social mobility’. On an individual level, this means that Who Do You Think You Are? is not trading in stories of privileged pasts. Yet, on a cumulative level, I worry that it gives an overriding impression of social progression. The programme is predicated on the gap between past and present. The tears, the realisation, the sympathy all spring from the discovery of how tough things were ‘back then’ and the contrast with the celebrity’s current situation. Poverty, discrimination, shame are therefore seen to be resolutely ‘of the past’.
This problem is not exclusive to Who Do You Think You Are? If we think of historical reality TV shows – 1900 House,* 1940 House,* Victorian Farm, Coal House, for example - the drama comes from the supposedly privileged and pampered citizens of modern Britain undergoing the hardships of the past. While these programmes may be asking us (and the participants) to identify personal and emotional continuities across time, the economic and social situation they face is conceived as entirely other. This means that although we may feel outraged about poverty, discrimination or inequality in the past, this does not translate into outrage about similar situations in the present.
Current discussions about food banks are a good example of the way these attitudes towards the past can inform opinions in the present. On the one hand such poverty is described as ‘Dickensian’, with the idea that any return to it is deeply shocking. On the other hand, we see a persistent belief that food poverty simply can’t exist in modern Britain, that it belongs to the past, and that therefore anyone using food banks must be somehow feckless, lazy and irresponsible (see for instance the comments thread under this article).
Ironically, of course, this echoes the condemnation of the ‘undeserving poor’ in the nineteenth century. Few people today would agree that the Victorian poor were undeserving – we see them as victims of time and history as much as of economics. Yet it is precisely because we pride ourselves on having left such ‘Dickensian’ conditions and attitudes behind that we continue to judge their modern counterparts as the architects of their own misfortune. They don’t live in the past; therefore they have no excuse.
This is clearly not the message that Alex Graham wants to send out. He is clearly committed to recovering and honouring lives that would otherwise be forgotten and to unsettling many of our perceptions about Britain and its past. This is all for the good. Yet, it is worth remembering that obscurity, poverty, discrimination and inequality persist. For some people this is the reality of who they are now; not just how their ancestors were then.
*1900 House and 1940 House were also created by Alex Graham and his company Wall to Wall. As was Edwardian Country House, which examined historical inequality from the opposite angle, asking a modern family to experience life at the top of the Edwardian social hierarchy.