Who Do You Think You Are? review: David Walliams has a decent backstory but is not a likeable man

One great-grandad survived the Great War, but was so severely shellshocked that he spent the rest of his days in a ‘lunatic asylum’. The other went blind but wound up as a travelling entertainer

Sean O'Grady
Tuesday 20 October 2020 09:38
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David Walliams on Who Do You Think You Are?

The producers of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One) must live in morbid fear that a celebrity boasts a family tree that yields only the most meagre of fruits. Occasionally there is a spectacular ancestral windfall. Danny Dyer’s distant but direct link down from medieval monarch Edward III, for example. Or Naomie Harris’s mixed heritage including slaves and slave owners. 

But imagine if some colourful public figure’s antecedents were exclusively dull, or, worse, linked to some deeply uncool figure, such as Nigel Farage. By the way, it’d actually be fun for Farage to explore his immigrant forebears, but I’m guessing his chemistry with the BBC doesn’t encourage the commission.  

Anyway, David Walliams does have a decent enough backstory, and a moving one. One great-grandad was a strapping lad with some resemblance to Walliams, and served with the Grenadier Guards in the Great War. John George Boorman survived the Somme and Ypres, but was so severely shellshocked (what we now know as PTSD) that he spent the rest of his days, until his death in 1962, in a “lunatic asylum”, seeing little of his children. The pretty pictures he painted in the art therapy classes gave no hint to his mental trauma. 

The other remarkable great-grandfather was rendered blind after failed surgery for cataracts, but wound up as a “travelling entertainer”, running fairground rides with his wife and kids. Early in his career on a barrel organ, he was prosecuted for using his kids to beg, but went on to become fairly prosperous, though still caravan-based. 

Surviving photos suggest a dapper sort of chap always ready with a quip and a strong ambition, not so very different to Walliams. Every entertainer in every age, after all, has to be self-made, though; there are no hereditary peak-time slots on Saturday night telly.

The general impression of Walliams’ ancestry is of an entertaining, lively sort of bunch – traits which charmingly, in the sequences with his mum Kathleen, still seem to be going strong. Walliams himself though is not an especially likeable man. He seems permanently underwhelmed, and a bit off-hand with some of the professional historians who’ve done all the heavy work in the archives, tracking down vivid details and revealing little glimpses of his distant relatives. Maybe that impression of him is just down to Walliams’ manner and his sense of humour, which is dry to the point of desiccation. I’m not sure I’d be entirely delighted to find Walliams popping up in my family tree. 

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