York’s history department has played a role in uncovering the remarkable backgrounds of some of the nation’s most prized celebrities and public figures.
Since 2004, television production company Wall to Wall Television has been producing the award-winning genealogical programme, Who Do You Think You Are?, for the BBC, as part of the corporation’s renowned commitment to the popularisation of family history. Ben Samuel, a graduate of York’s history department, has been working for Wall to Wall since Spring 2007 and has helped reconstruct the origins of a series of famous people for the show. Amongst the highlights of his experience on the show, Ben includes tracing Rick Stein’s family roots in China and tracking down the great-grandson of a man who saved an ancestor of David Suchet from drowning at sea.
Ben says that his time at York has been beneficial to his career: ‘My three years at York have been a huge help in my job. Not only has the work ethic instilled in me by the university given me the ability to keep up in the frenetic pace of the TV industry but, more specifically to Who Do You Think You Are?, my training in History has given me the skills to find and analyse a range of historical sources and utilise them to give an interesting, exciting account of the past.’
Amongst those individuals featured in the new, sixth series of Who Do You Think You Are? is actress Zoë Wanamaker, whose father moved to England from the United States in the 1950s during the political repression associated with the McCarthy era’s notorious wave of anticommunist witch-hunts. Zoë’s father, actor and director Sam Wanamaker, is perhaps most famous in Britain for his role in spearheading the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. But Ben and his colleagues have dug deeply into the family’s history, uncovering the controversial and dramatic detail surrounding Sam’s experiences in America and decision to move to Britain.
Coming from a family of Jewish immigrants who themselves migrated to the United States early in the twentieth century, Sam’s life became overtaken by politics in the 1950s when he was investigated by the American government for alleged Communist affiliations and was blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. (Was Sam really a Communist or was this a case of hysterical ‘red-baiting’? To find out you’ll have to watch the programme!) It was at this point that Sam decided to move to Britain.
One of Ben’s first points of contact when researching the Wanamaker family was his old place of education. Dr. Alex Goodall, a specialist on the history of anticommunism in the United States, was happy to provide advice and background information on the era. To Dr. Goodall, Wanamaker’s story provides a fascinating example of how these vast, seemingly impersonal political forces can have such a powerful and permanent impact on the lives of ordinary individuals caught up in them: ultimately explaining why Zoë Wanamaker ended up one of Britain’s, rather than America’s, best-loved actresses!
“Programmes like Who Do You Think You Are? do a vital job of conveying to millions of viewers in Britain and around the world that history is not just dry accounts of strange people hidden away in dusty books, but events which affect everybody’s lives – from the rich and famous to average person on the street,” Dr. Goodall says. “It’s particularly gratifying to see that one of our former students is playing such a valuable part in demonstrating this to the public.”
The fifth series of Who Do You Think You Are? featured surprising, funny and often moving accounts of the lives of celebrities’ families: including those of Boris Johnson, Jerry Springer, Esther Rantzen and Jodie Kidd. Alongside Zoë, the new, sixth series will feature the genealogical histories of Rory Bremner, Fiona Bruce, Rick Stein and Kevin Whately. It airs on Mondays from 2 February 2009. Zoë Wanamaker’s programme will be shown on 23 February.
For more information, see the BBC Family History website.