Last Night's TV: Who Do You Think You Are?/BBC1
Amol Rajan was appointed editor of The Independent in June 2013. He was previously Editor of Independent Voices, a comment, campaigns and community platform across print and digital. He was earlier Deputy Comment Editor, Sports News Correspondent and a news reporter. He writes a restaurant column for the Independent on Sunday, and has a column in the Evening Standard (Mondays), Independent and i (Fridays). He used to work on Channel 5's The Wright Stuff, and at the Foreign Office; he is also a trustee of Prospex, a charity for young people in Islington. He has written a book called Twirlymen: the Unlikely History of Cricket's Greatest Spin Bowlers.
Thursday 11 August 2011
Stop me when you've guessed what I'm describing. "The hooked nose, the thick lips, the swarthy complexion, the curly black hair, and piercing dark eyes..." Got it yet? I'll go on. "Every traditional feature of the Jewish face was there in most marked and pronounced character."
Any luck? It's not Dot Cotton from EastEnders, I'm afraid. Or June Brown, the actress who plays her, though curls apart it might as well be. In fact, it describes the rather extraordinary Victorian bare-knuckle boxer Isaac Bitton, a distant relative of Brown's who would provide a tributary connecting the 84-year-old with her Sephardic ancestry. The stereotypes were used to good effect, so that in the opening salvo of the latest series of Who Do You Think You Are? we immediately understood this would be a history of modern Jewry, with Brown as the conduit.
Bitton, who once fought 74 rounds at the age of 23 and retired undefeated, was part of an underground scene in the East End that saw blacks and Irishmen fight, literally, to be part of a society from which they were marginalised. Indeed, Brown effectively made the point that Bitton was part of a long and dark chapter in British anti-Semitism, so that her ability to talk freely about the subject, as a television heroine and fixture of modern cockney London, showed what progress we have made.
Brown made a fascinating subject. She is the oldest person to do this show, and alternately spoke as if she were gargling with pebbles, and doing her impression of the common garden toad. She had the charming, instant surprise at historical curiosities of Bruce Forsyth – a former subject on this show – and struck me as something of a female version of him. And just like with dear Bruce, who sauntered through America, it was when on her travels that she made most compelling viewing.
I remember a few years back visiting the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, and thinking that what was commonly said about George Orwell's essays – that anyone who wanted to understand the 20th century had to experience them – might be true of it too. The Dutch city, as Brown discovered, is hard to surpass for an insight into the horrors inflicted on Jews through modernity. At one point early on, she said: "I don't think I'll weep" – a nod to Jeremy Paxman, who did when seeing the penury his grandmother lived in – but she came close to it looking through Dutch archives.
It was in those that she found the true exoticism in her heritage. Bitton's distant relatives in fact lived for some time in Oran, a fortress town in what is now northern Algeria. But towards the end of the 17th century, they were expelled at the whim of a rascal duke, who sought to curry favour with his Catholic masters, and be on the right side of the Spanish Inquisition, by cleansing his area of Jews. Brown's very distant forebears were slung onto a boat headed for Europe, completely beholden to the elements.
Brown was in awe of their courage, and if this was the moment for tears, it never came. Instead, and having enjoyed watching so many of the climaxes to this excellent show, I was struck by a singular thought.
Who Do You Think You Are? is always a success. They always find some magic nugget from distant generations, some precious anecdote, or peculiar archive that speaks of great human struggles. They employ distinguished academics to do the bulk of the research, of course; but you must imagine that every time the producers sit down to ask each other who they'll profile next, the thought must enter their mind: what if we find nothing? What if June Brown or Jeremy Paxman or Bruce Forsyth has a spectacularly tedious inheritance?
Few of us do, and maybe that's the point. But if we now expect this show to reach a high point in its dying moments, that is testimony to some very effective journalism, on which the makers of the show should be congratulated.
Last week, I noted that DIY SOS, in which Nick Knowles helps fix a house, was a rather cheering project. In it, a community comes together for an impoverished family. Village SOS took the same theme, but presenter Sarah Beeny focused on an 18th-century water mill in Talgarth, in the Brecon Beacons. It was all very splendid, but in dressing this up as an attempt to reverse the decline of Britain's native industries, a worthwhile local task was needlessly cast as a project for national salvation. A fine show, but with delusions of grandeur.
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