Last Night's Television: Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC1
Location, Location, Location, Channel 4
Thursday 20 August 2009
If it was emotional understatement and his everyman qualities that made Martin Freeman's turn as Tim Canterbury in The Office so effective, then his sentimental brevity in the BBC's family tree magazine show Who Do You Think You Are? was a very different proposition. When watching, it was almost as if Jeremy Paxman, with tears in his nationalistic, self-regarding eyes, was looking down on Freeman with disdain from the Corporation's High Command. We should be primed for some pathos, expectant of some clean-cut, sugar-coated epiphany, something life-affirming and revealing about one of telly's hottest names. It never arrived. That's because genealogy is a scrapyard of crushed dreams, and many people's family trees are bored like Swiss cheese. For the first part of this programme, Freeman let the viewer believe that he was finding it hard to summon up any kind of interest in the distant past's minutiae. You can't blame him; he is a bloke's bloke. We were also told that his father died of a heart attack when he was 10. So he's probably had more emotional turbulence to weather than can be delivered in under an hour by the patina of light entertainment.
The first section of the show dealt with Freeman's grandfather Leonard, a private in the Territorial Army's medical corps who died shortly before British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk. Freeman found out how he was machine-gunned to death in a wood by the Luftwaffe, and he was "moved" by a stone memorial, in which Leonard's name is inscribed. (It's just as well. Freeman's family used to joke that he was killed while making a round of tea).
When the actor turned his interest to his great-grandfather, Richard William, the programme hit some sort of stride. Raised in a blind school, Richard trained as a organist before being dismissed from a local church in mysterious circumstances. As we moved through Richard's story, personal revelations were placed into their historical context (revealing some wonderful footage of the Victorians' progressive take on blind education). After his putative disgrace, Richard moved from Worthing to Hull, became a music teacher, and met Ada, who was also blind. They raised six children, but lost six. Freeman tracked down a living relative and the straight man listened dutifully, before moving into the programme's coda: discovering why 50 per cent of his great-grandparents' children passed away (it was syphilis). By this point, Freeman seemed genuinely interested, though he could, of course, just as well been listening to an anecdote in a pub.
And sorry to deliver a downer here, but crushed dreams were also the name of the day in Location, Location, Location, with two new couples shuffling into the jaws of the property market to be "sorted out" by gurus Kirstie Allsopp and Phil Spencer. First up, Patrick and Charley. As Patrick was a colonel in the military, the pair had spent their marriage on a base and wanted a bit of white-picket-fence action. They were shown various places, all within marching distant of schools on the south coast, but most were slightly unimpressive, and barrack-like. When they eventually placed an offer, £10,000 above their budget, it fell through, because the place needed too much work. "Get a grip, Charlie, and reappraise your hopes and desires," seemed to be Allsopp's sole mantra.
But that was a breeze compared to Simon and Tina, slighty uptight City folk who wanted to get down with the (or bring up some) kids Tunbridge-Wells-side. Tina seemed more concerned about what their mates would think and whether "energy levels" were running positively or negatively through her new pad. Nightmarish. When they eventually found themselves a place and put an offer down, again it fell through. Presumably, the cosmos revolted out of abject boredom.
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