The Weekend's TV: Who Do You Think You Are? Sun, BBC1
Richard Hammond's Engineering Connections, Sun, BBC2

When drama runs in the family

The underlying story of Who Do You Think You Are? – the first of the American series of Wall to Wall's blood-and-roots hit – was of the slow convergence between Sarah Jessica Parker's noisy incredulity and a revelation that actually seemed worthy of it.

You can take it as read that American versions of British reality shows will be brasher and louder than the originals, because American television executives always like to take the type-size up a point or 10, just in case someone misses the message. If Gordon Ramsay shouts a bit and loses his temper over here, then he'll have to turn into a borderline psychopath in America, so that nobody can be in any doubt that him being angry and shouty is what the show's "about". If the spouse-traders in Wife Swap here get a bit testy with each other during the debriefing, then over there they'll virtually haul out handguns. That standard inflation rate – combined with the fact that any immigrant nation brings a certain febrile intensity to questions of origin – meant it was sensible to be braced for a bit of gush from the start. Even so, Parker's wide-eyed excitement was... well, let's say, not entirely British.

"Oh. My. God!" she exclaimed when her mother brought out an old snapshot of her maternal great grandmother, "Wow!" It was as if she was stunned to discover that her family hadn't been produced by spontaneous generation only a few years previously. And each successive generational onion-skin only amplified the thrill. It was, she thought, "unbelievable" that a 19th-century ancestor turned out to be called John Eber Hodge and hailed from Cincinnati, even though that was the town where she grew up. And when the local records revealed that he'd headed west as a forty-niner, hoping to strike it rich in the California gold fields, she had to break the word in three to convey the full scale of her astonishment. "Un. Bee. Leevable," she said.

We were getting a little closer to a match between stimulus and reaction here, even if it was surprising to find that she was surprised by remains of worked-out goldmines in the Californian hills: "I just cannot believe that this is part of that," she said. "That it's still here... that nobody's moved it." And then her almost limitless capacity for startlement finally encountered a worthy object. Travelling to New England to trace back the Hodge line, she was first of all delighted to discover that her American roots went back to within 30 years of the Mayflower ("this is soooo crazy") and then virtually rendered unconscious by the revelation that a female ancestor had been named on a warrant during the Salem witch trials. At last, a match! We'll give you that one Sarah Jessica, since I think pretty much anyone would get a bit giddy on finding out that a distant relative had played a dangerously direct role in one of America's darker episodes. "I just want to go on record that I'm finding this physically upsetting," said Parker, as she read the deposition of one of the hysterical teenagers who sustained the witch hunts, to the effect that Esther Elwell had murdered her neighbour in phantasmal form. Esther was very lucky in her timing – her accusation came just as the trials began to collapse in on themselves, and she lived on to the age of 82. "It's changed everything about who I thought I was," said Parker about this discovery. "I have real stock in this country, real roots.... you know, I'm an American, I'm actually an American!" That's right, Sarah. We've Bee Leeved it for years and now you can too.

I wouldn't mind seeing a genealogical tree for Richard Hammond's Engineering Connections, in which the little meerkatty one off Top Gear unveils the unexpected continuity between current engineering marvels and ancient techniques. I'm seeing something around the eyes that reminds me very much of a Seventies series called Connections, in which James Burke created a kind of historical domino race, with one historical innovation tipping off the next one, concluding in some modern marvel that appeared to have absolutely nothing to do with where we began. Whereas Burke was all about unexpected consequences, though Richard Hammond's Engineering Connections is more generalised boy's fun, often involving practical experiments in which something is broken or blown up. Last night's episode – focused on the construction of Hong Kong's new airport – included a section on Barnes Wallis's development of lattice-steel structures for the Wellington bomber and permitted Hammond to play with a crane and iron girders. A later sequence, about the flexible joints that prevent the airport roof taking off for Thailand when a typhoon strikes, gave him the excuse to destroy a car, while the explanation of the Doppler effect involved a radio-controlled plane buzzing the film crew in a way that will surely have required an extra sheet on the risk-assessment form.

It's all pretty harmless, even if Hammond's larky manner and pretended "oo-er" moments get a bit wearing after a while. And it does do something to shine a light on engineers, people who don't always get quite enough credit for the fact that we can go about our business without the roof falling in on us. It did seem a little odd though that neither last week's programme – about the Millau Viaduct in France – nor this one bothered to give a namecheck to the architect of both schemes, Norman Foster. I know it's bolts and maths that keep these things up, but the fact that they're beautiful too isn't just an accident.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?