“When I heard we were coming to Wales, I was excited that maybe there’d be a revelation in my family history like, I don’t know, one of my ancestors was a Welsh miner or something like that,” explains ubiquitous posh comic Jack Whitehall in one of the funnier moments of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One). “But no, turns out: massive Tory.”
The great genius of Who Do You Think You Are? is typically the unearthing of historical information that rewires our notions of famous faces. Think Danny Dyer’s ties to royalty, or that Jerry Springer, pioneer of exploitation television, descended from poverty, Jewish refugees and victims of the Holocaust. But there’s also something very funny about a celebrity discovering their familial history is exactly what they, and us at home, expect it to be. Because of course Jack Whitehall is descended from anti-democratic Conservative Party members determined to squash working-class rights.
He at least reacts appropriately for the most part. Alongside his father Michael, together the first duo to headline their own Who Do You Think You Are? episode, Whitehall appears deeply embarrassed throughout much of his hour, confronted with evidence that his great-great-great-great grandfather was involved in what he calls “pioneering scumbaggery”. His voice, usually high and plummy, becomes softer and almost hushed, with every revelation resulting in what looks like a full-body sigh.
It materialised that the pair’s ancestor Thomas Jones Phillips was part of a Conservative movement to prevent the working classes from earning the right to vote, and had played a pivotal role in hunting down the leaders of the Chartist uprising determined to spread democracy through early Victorian Wales. They would later be exiled to Australia, while Phillips would go on to further riches.
The episode's other revelations were equally repugnant. Whitehall’s quest for the origins of his familial wealth resulted in the discovery of a rich businessman who had adopted his great-grandfather after the deaths of his own parents – his father in a “pony and trap” accident, and then his mother after “dying by grief”. This, as with all vague historical statements on the long-running BBC show, was determined to be a euphemism.
In truth, Caroline Whitehall had been medically deemed a “lunatic”, after experiencing a psychological breakdown stemming from what is today recognised as syphilis. Caroline’s philandering husband, his own death likely caused by syphilis rather than the ambiguous “pony and trap” accident, was believed to be the cause, expert Professor Hilary Marlin declaring: “Women were seen as the vulnerable victims of men’s sexual misbehaviour.”
But despite both Whitehall and his father reacting with appropriate sadness and embarrassment to the treatment of Caroline and the actions of Phillips, neither truly grapples with the latter. It's hard to say what the right way is to deal with the sins of your family history, but there is something vaguely distasteful about the episode’s closer, with Whitehall making a deadpan joke about wishing he had explored the history of his mother’s side of the family instead.
Considering the privilege Whitehall has been afforded in life, from his expensive public school education to his father’s involvement in showbiz (Michael was a theatrical agent who represented the likes of Judi Dench and Colin Firth), it would be more affecting to see him recognise how heavily his current success has been built, historically speaking, on the backs of the less fortunate. That even if neither he nor his father had actively attempted to diminish the opportunities of the working classes in recent history, they’re still benefiting from much of the same social disorder that his ancestors attempted to keep in place.
Often Who Do You Think You Are? is an important reminder of the tragedies of history. Other times, it works as proof that ultimately very little has changed.
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