TV Genealogy: Back to Basics
We are currently enjoying something of a ‘Golden Age’ of TV
genealogy. Who Do You Think You Are?,
War Hero in My Family, Find My Past and Long Lost Family have all graced our screens of late – to say
nothing of other hidden nuggets on radio. It’s all a far cry from a decade or
so ago when family history was not deemed worthy of even a passing mention on
We may have ‘never had it so good’, but questions have been
levelled at the quality of the research behind the glut of TV coverage. Have
stories been ‘sexed up’? Has the quality of the research been up to scratch? Frankly,
from a distance, none of us can comment on such accusations; but some of those
close to the shows have expressed concern that academic standards have been
compromised in the search for a ‘good story’.
TV commissioners are, more than ever these days, interested
only in what has wide public appeal. In a highly competitive market, viewing
figures are all – and this is reflected in the subject matter of the current crop
of genealogical programmes. To pique the interest of the casual viewer, stories
often involve a celebrity; and if the process involves something as ‘risky’ as
an unknown member of the general public taking centre stage then we have to
have high drama: a world war, perhaps, or an emotional reunion. And, dodgy
research or not, this is understandable. After all, how else are we going to
persuade non-family historians to tune in?
Will there ever be room, I wonder, for a return to basics?
Back in 1979, ex-news presenter and actor, Gordon Honeycombe,
presented a low-key five-part series on BBC2 entitled, simply, Family History. The series, repeated
several times during the 1980s, was, if memory serves, a simple affair, and
followed the central figure on his journey of genealogical discovery. It would show
really boring things like parish registers (usually still held by the parish
church), census returns, and all sorts of other dry old source material in the flesh. You know, the very basics
of genealogical research. The accompanying book of the series (Discovering Your Family History by Don
Steel) was loaned to me by a work colleague in the mid-1980s, and away I went
on my own 20-odd year journey of discovery.
These days, any such basic, on-screen guidance to the
records is limited to occasional on-line
tutorials – but even these are hard to come by. Is there any chance, do you
think, that the golden media that is television will lower itself to producing
a back-to-basics, step-by-step guide to genealogy? Let’s see what a parish
register looks like, tell us how the census returns can be used to maximum
effect, and indoctrinate folk in the principles of structured, rigorous
research techniques. And, of course, tell them how rewarding and fun the whole
process can be.
I shouldn’t think it’ll make for sexy enough viewing,
More excellent comment on the subject of family history and
TV can be found here
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