Last Night's Viewing: Who Do You Think You Are?, BBC1
Mrs Biggs, ITV1
While you never know quite what to find when you go ancestor hunting, past series of Who Do You Think You Are? have conditioned the regular watcher to some familiar themes. Yes, we have unearthed an astonishingly adventurous bigamist (Bruce Forsyth's great something) and a man who made a great deal of money out of glass storage jars (Jeremy Clarkson's great-great something) to name the two most remarkable antecedents (and men who might be equally astonished at the chutzpah of their descendants).
Annie Lennox's past revealed less interesting personalities. Given that her ancestry was entirely Scottish, and the bulk of the research delved into the Victorian era, and given the vast social divisions of the time, when the poor were not just with us but predominated, it was not entirely surprising that one branch of the family was raised in rural poverty and the other in urban poverty.
The most any of them came to celebrity status was one of Annie's great-grandparents, who served as a ghillie on the Balmoral estate, and sometimes enjoyed a waltz with the Queen Mum, his girlfriend at the time having to peek at the flirtation from the balcony at the servant's ball, surrounded by the heads of the deer her future husband had helped stalk. None were murderers, went down on the Titanic or were in the music hall, the best one the programme producers might have hoped for.
What was more interesting was the question that Annie Lennox raised late on in the show: "Urban poverty or rural poverty? Which is better? Neither really." True enough, though the hovel one of Annie's forebears reared chickens in, overlooking the magnificence of Braemar, suggested that was a rather healthier fate than the room in Aberdeen another had to raise five children in. The poultry maid lived to 83; the teenage linen factory worker to 35.
As the routine litany of WDYTYA? was poured forth – illegitimacy, workhouses, parochial boards, pauperism, consumption, big families – I was taken up short by the power of the Scottish Kirk in its 19th-century brutality. One of Annie's great great-grandmas had the misfortune to be "summonsed" before the Kirk session, the elders, men who knew her and her circumstances well, "accused as an unmarried woman of bringing forth a child", for which she was duly admonished, not once but twice. On the second occasion, the prurience of those mutton-chopped churchmen was well captured in the minutes of the session that stated that she had confessed that "that guilt took place betwixt them only once", a "one-night stand" in modern parlance. A sort of cross between Sharia law and the Child Support Agency, the Kirk took it upon itself to summon the errant dad, a watchmaker, to make him pay up for the upkeep of the child. Like the CSA, they failed to find him.
It will not take much detective work by future genealogists to discover the details of the life of Ronald Arthur Biggs, which, had he not played a part in the violent Great Train Robbery of 1963, would have ended in petty criminal obscurity, rather than on the front pages of the papers and the subject of parliamentary questions. (He is still clinging to life as I write). Mrs Biggs centred on the love affair with the respectable girl Biggs seduced into a life of crime. Yet try and try as Sheridan Smith (Charmian Biggs, *ée Brent) and Daniel May (Biggsy) tried, I found it impossible to warm to the pair and find him the sort of "lovable rogue" intended. Indeed, I found the uncompromising Victorian rectitude of Charmian's father, a headmaster who found it impossible to accept this "degenerate", much more sympathetic, not least because he was played by the ever brilliant Adrian Scarborough. I just wonder what another generation will make of a time when such a creature as Biggs could become a "celeb". For Biggs, sweet dreams were made of this.
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