Ashes to ashes

Who Do You Think You Are and Red or Black

Samantha Womack. She not only looks a bit like Samantha Janus, she’s the same person

This is a story about two TV programmes.  One is a very engaging programme which succeeds because it taps into audience needs on different levels.  And the other is a misconceived disaster on almost every level.  However, the first one is based on a dodgy premise, while the other, for all its doltishness, has a grain of honesty about it.

Who Do You Think You Are

We’re all individuals aren’t we.  Special and lovely in our own unique way.  And it’s not nice to be reminded how many of us there really are, how insignificant and tiny or let’s be frank, invisible we are as individuals, because we might go postal and run around killing a few people.

So we focus on individual stories and individual people.  The subtlety of personality, the deeper context on which it is based, the road travelled and the love and relationships made along the way.  Who Do You Think You Are succeeds on many of these levels.  It has wonderful stories of our ancestors, and makes heroes of those unsung registrars who diligently took records all those years ago, and the public servants who look after these records now.  Tonight’s episode featured the actress Samantha Womack, and concerned the story of her Great Grandfather, a soldier and musician who was convicted of stealing musical instruments.  And it also covered his mother-in-law, Samantha’s great great grandmother, Jessie Ryder.

This week, as with every other, we were encouraged to speculate on the coincidences between the travails of the ancestors and what we know about the modern celebrity who is featured – in this case it was a musical connection with Samantha’s father, a drummer.

A family tree from the top down. But from the bottom up is more realistic…

Samantha seems to derive real comfort from the experience.  As she explained: , ‘It’s been a strange journey… I think there’s a piece within me that wasn’t there before of just knowing that I came from somewhere, that there was a family out there that I belong to, and that clearly they were all performers in some way and that gives me a real sense of pride. It’s been truly truly healing, and something that I will never be able to change now.  I’ll never ask those questions again… “who are we…  where are we from”, because I’ll know’.

It’s all there in the quote – the story arc provided by Samantha’s journey through the achives, the sense of belonging, personal recognition and pride she gained, the comfort of healing, and the security of understanding one’s origins…

It’s the Censydiam needs model again. ‘Who Do You Think…’ delivers on Recognition, Control, Security and Belonging. A multiple audience needs delivery-system packed into a personal story

The audience is shepherded through.  And they can think about their own family, their circumstances – it touches their own protective urges, gives them a sense of comfort knowing where they have come from, and giving them a sense of belonging.    It’s charming, and yet these are deep human urges.  The gentle, unhurried pace and quiet time allows the viewer to watch Samantha’s journey while making their own, comparing their own sense of what they have inherited from their antecedents, while enjoying the history lesson and the journey along the way.

But perhaps it is all a bit TOO neat.

One problem begins the moment you start to do the maths.  It’s the problem with genealogy.  When you go back a few generations you are suddenly confronted with the grim logic of exponentialism, with ancestors doubling with each preceding generation.   The programme featured one of Samantha’s great great grandmothers, but Samantha has another seven of them (and eight great etc fathers), and genealogy forces us to look at just one line.  Were they ‘all performers‘?  Is pride really appropriate?   If it all sounds like the random snippets from beyond the grave provided by mediums and fortune tellers that’s because it uses a similar trick.   Any sense of healing or pride that Samantha derives is similar to the satisfaction felt by somewhat needy people who have been conned by one of these charlatans.  They believe that a recently ‘passed’ relative has communicated with them and wants them to feel better about that, thing with the, whatsit, that they’d forgotten about.

We can admire the cleverness of the trick, while trying not to buy into it. Who Do You Think You Are, manages the artifice really cleverly.

Red or Black

Red or Black. The first series really was quite appalling.

And then there’s Red or Black.  You may remember the first series of this ITV gameshow.  It featured a cast of 1000 contestants, whittled down by a series of halvings as random as tossing a coin and eliminating the ones who guessed wrong.  The 1000, became 500, and then 250, 125, 63, 32, 16, and then 8. These 8 were invited into the studio, and profiled before being whittled down to 4, then 2, and finally 1.   The winner then won (or didn’t) a million pounds based on a random red or black roulette-wheel spin.   The second series is apparently radically different.  It would need to be, because the first series was appalling.  It had no concept of how to tap into audience needs.  Contrast with Who Do You Think You Are?   Instead of individual stories we had crowds of people mowed down as in some sort of death camp.

The wastage of the 999 losing contestants. Red or Black, foot or mouth…


There was no point in getting to know any of them because they’d likely be gone shortly afterwards.  It was brutal, horrible stuff, made worse by the entirely random nature of the exercise.  Random, and yet preordained too.  We knew what would happen, we just didn’t know who it would happen to.  The losers were no more deserving of their fate than the winner was.  When you do the maths… even with the 8 contestants in the studio, these handful, just 0.8% the original sample few, they were only a 16th each likely to win.  With the final 2 there was only a one in four chance of a particular one winning.  The audience could neither empathise with  them, nor join in with their journey.

And yet.  And yet… that’s the way life is, in the long-run.    Red or Black might have forgotten about audiences needs, but it is more honest about who we are and how we got here.  Its format of randomly picked, ever diminishing individuals would be a version of  Who Do You Think You Are if its usual team was replaced by teams of epidemiologists and exponentialists, rather than archivists and story-tellers.

It shows that sometimes a successful, respected programme can pull a fast one, while an unsuccessful lowest common denominator can, despite itself, tell us something profound about the human condition.


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