Saturday 9 June 2012

Something for the Weekend 11

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 the box.

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, though.

More excellent comment on the subject of family history and TV can be found here.

Mick Southwick

If you’d like to write a piece for the ‘Something for the Weekend’ feature, run it past me - I'd really like to hear from you. There is no need to be an expert, a published author, or qualified in any way. You just need to have something interesting to say – or maybe you’d like to promote a product, a research technique or even show off your expertise! And you can even give something a little ‘plug’ if you wish (a book, or whatever). Get in touch with me at . Oh, and it’s OK to be controversial!

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