Last Night's TV: Who Do You Think You Are?/BBC1
Village SOS/BBC1

 

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.

a.rajan@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/amolrajan

Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice