Exclusive Interview: Celebrity Secrets behind the scenes with the BBC’s fifth series of Who Do You Think You Are?

August 13, 2008 by  
Filed under Features

Ever wondered how they get the scoop on all those celebrity secrets? Susan Allen delves behind the scenes on the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? (Tonight, BBC1 at 9pm) with Assistant Producer, Elisabeth Kerr and Researcher, Ben Samuel to get the inside scoop on the thrills and spills of dishing the dirt on celebs’ family histories.


Who exactly do celebrities think they are these days? One minute you’ve got Sienna Miller throwing a hissy fit at the paparazzi, who are, let’s just clarify, paid to keep her face firmly in the papers (may the rascals rot in hell!) and the next, fame-hound, Peaches Geldof, goes and oh-so-crazily gets hitched in Vegas. Will their egos never cease to expand?

But wait, bring to the arena Who Do You Think You Are?, the programme famous for refreshingly grounding stars by uncovering their family history and revealing a side to them we can all relate to. Now about to air for its fifth series, the show has proved to be exceptionally popular. With work already begun on a sixth series and the current one promising eye-openers for the likes of Jerry Springer and Boris Johnson, this show has obviously got something that’s capturing our attention.

I decided to find out what it’s really like being the ones to reveal ancestral secrets to Britain’s biggest celebrities and just what makes the series so appealing. Why do we care so much about the family history of our celebrities?

OnTheBox: Who Do You Think You Are? has been going for four series now. This is its fifth. Why is it so successful?

Ben Samuel: “Generally it’s difficult to do much on telly that isn’t visual – The thing about WDYTYA is that it takes bits of history that would never make it onto telly otherwise and personalises them so it isn’t just this abstract piece of history. It becomes an emotionally engaging drama.?

Elisabeth Kerr: “Also, everyone has an interest in their own family legends that they hear at home.?

OTB: So, would you say that the programme’s a family history show or a more of a celeb-fest?

BS: “At its heart it’s a documentary but with a twist on it. It’s not just a point and shoot. Celebrities definitely make it successful. You want to know about these people who you’ve seen on telly. The celebrity aspect is important but at the same time, alot of celebrity based shows dumb down a lot where as, in my opinion, WDYTYA is one of the least dumbed-down, one of the most high brow history shows on telly because it looks into aspects of history that would never make it into telly otherwise.?

EK: “It’s true, people are always fascinated by celebrity culture and any opportunity to learn more about them is always popular.  I think that the celebrities are very brave in a way to allow the public into something so personal. The people that we do are national treasures as well. But there is also a more general interest in tracing your own family back.?

OTB: Is the live drama what makes it worth watching?

BS: “It’s the emotional response people want and I think when Patsy finds out about her Granddad she is truly shocked.

“You need to feel some affinity with the celebrities. If they’re cold and uninterested or just not very nice then you’re not going to feel the emotional connection with what’s happened to their ancestors.?

OTB: Have you had any celebrities on the show who were rather cold about their ancestors?

BS: “No we haven’t actually. I think that people get emotionally connected to their ancestors even if they enter the programme not really thinking that it will happen that much. For example, Jeremy Paxman – I would have thought that he would have seen it all very rationally but in the end something that happened to one of his ancestors actually made him cry. When it starts to become humanised and they realise that these people, who are their ancestors, actually had lives it all becomes quite emotional.“

OTB: Do you think the show inspires viewers to trace their own family history?

BS: “Definitely. WDYTYA came along at a time when family history was getting more popular and with the internet, it makes it easier. Obviously, I do a lot of research in archives and at the times that the show’s on TV they are 50% more full than at other times of the year. It’s a bit like Wimbledon when everyone decides to go out and start playing tennis!?

OTB: Patsy Kensit stars in the first episode. My Lord, she cries a lot…

BS: “Yeah, she was very upset by it. I think the first few generations back would upset anyone really. Everyone looks at their grandparents as these lovely people and to suddenly find out that they probably weren’t actually so lovely is a bit of a rude awakening?.

EK: “Also, with someone like Patsy, she’s made no secret that she found it emotionally quite challenging. She was very pleased with the end result so there were also tears of joy as well as tears of sadness– though clearly she’s very sad about finding out about her Grandfather. And that’s one of the things about the programmes because quite often we don’t know what we’re going to find. Sometimes it’s good stuff – you’ve got funny stories, and sometimes you find rogues and celebrities are aware of that upfront.?

OTB: How did Patsy react to what was found out about her family?

EK: “Both upset and surprised. I know she was very surprised and very proud to have found her ancestor at the end. There was a real sense one had done a very big circle. We’d started in the East End and finished in the East End but we’d arrived at different points.

I think there was a sense of relief as well. She was so worried that she was going to have a whole family line of villains but actually it’s not the case at all and you actually see that she starts to understand when she sees the longer trajectory.?

OTB: There’s not much in the episode about Patsy’s notoriously criminal father really. It largely looks at the previous generations who end up being the nice guys in her family history. Were there some dark things you found out about him that you didn’t show in the final cut?

BS: “No. She knew a lot about her father because he was alive when she was so telling her things she already knows is not really family history.?

EK: “Pretty much everything was there. Pretty much what you see is what we get. Patsy’s been talking about it quite openly.?

OTB: In the show, the team research over months and reveal their findings to the celebrity over a matter of days. Is it frustrating doing all the hard graft for the celebs who just waltz in to listen to what you’ve got?

BS: “No it’s quite exciting actually! We’re history detectives! Inevitably, you get caught up in it and when you find something interesting after you’ve put a lot of hard work in, you know that it will enrich the programme and that’s great!?

OTB: So, for the viewers at home, which is the best episode of the series, the one to look out for?

BS: “There are some really good ones. I’m not just saying that! [laughing] I’ve heard they’re all very good! But in the one with David Suchet there are a few surprises about his nationality. He didn’t realise he had roots in Britain. Oh, and the Jerry Springer one is quite harrowing.?

EK: “I think Patsy’s is a very interesting one. Because she wears her heart on her sleeve it’s quite compelling viewing. She invites you into her world and you do feel like you’re on that journey with her.?

While it’s pretty darn fascinating finding out about celebrity family secrets before they do and even more fun pointing a camera in their face while you reveal all and watch them react, Who Do You Think You Are? manages to avoid bringing out the fame-obsessed TV monkey in its participants in the way that I’m A Celebrity: Get Me Out of Here and such like do. Moreover, it inspires members of the public to become interested in their own family history. Indeed, this show’s strength lies in its deftly personal approach and if anything, shows celebrities at their most accessible.


By Susan Allen

Don’t miss Patsy’s emotional revelations in the new series of Who Do You Think You Are? starting tonight on BBC1 at 9pm.

And if you’re interested in finding out more from behind the scenes and perhaps a little about your own family history, go to www.bbc.co.uk/whodoyouthinkyouare.