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Who Do You Think You Are? ★★★★
At the start of this episode, which opens the 14th season of the genealogy series, Barry Humphries explains that his participation in it was motivated by curiosity and vanity, as well as the knowledge that “it might be one of the last TV shows I do because, in spite of my appearance, I’m quite old.” Sadly the remark proved prescient and, following his recent death, it functions as something of a tribute to the man and an illustration of some of his talents.
The late Barry Humphries is featured in the new season of Who Do You Think You Are?Credit: SBS
Soon after that, with a characteristically mischievous glint in his eye, the 89-year-old, one-of-a-kind entertainer declares, “I’m still fairly convinced that if there is an interesting person in my family tree, it’s me. I doubt if there’s anyone as interesting as I am. I’ll be fascinated to know how wrong I am.”
The prediction is possibly an accurate reflection of what he believed, or maybe just a bit of cheeky fun. Either way, it makes for a good set-up. It’s also a typically provocative pronouncement from a performer who made an art and a seven-decade international career from piercing observations, rapier wit, sly social commentary and bursts of outrageousness. Most came via his characters: self-anointed housewife superstar Dame Edna Everage, grotty politician Sir Les Patterson and suburban stalwart Sandy Stone.
Whether or not Humphries is correct about his uniquely interesting place in the family tree is up to viewers to decide. Suffice to say, this episode is a continually engaging one, full of the kinds of tales of triumph and tragedy, as well as the twists, that the globally popular format relies upon.
The original version of the series came from the UK in 2004, when the BBC’s first female controller, Jane Root, who was heading BBC2, was seeking productions that might have broad appeal. She discovered that genealogy was the most popular course at adult-education classes in England and, following two unsuccessful attempts to capitalise on that interest, hit on the idea of using famous people and their family trees.
“I realised that it’s very difficult to be interested in the genealogy of people you don’t care about,” she explained to this publication in 2010. “It’s a bit like other people’s holiday photographs, or other people’s dreams: it’s not as interesting to anybody else as it is to you.”
So the first incarnation, and adaptations subsequently produced in more than a dozen countries around the world, from Israel and Ireland to South Africa and Sweden, have primarily focused on subjects from the arts and entertainment industries, as well as the occasional sporting champion.
Early in Humphries’ episode, in which his language is as lively and colourful as his outfits, he explains that, as a child, he felt like an “alien” in his family as no one shared his interests. He was convinced he was adopted and kept waiting for his real parents to turn up and take him away.
The episode initially explores his father’s heritage and Humphries becomes increasingly intrigued by the emerging chronology, delighting in hearing words such as “absconded” in relation to one ancestor who fled her marriage and remarking in relation to another, “I always hoped there was a criminal in my family.” One discovery prompts him to exclaim, “We’re getting closer to the juiciness I was hoping for,” when the Bridgerton-style “buzz” surrounding a surprising royal connection is revealed.
When it comes to exploring his maternal line, he notes, “My mother was possessed of a genteel bigotry. She has a very sly and oblique way of reproaching people, of expressing her snobbery, and it was, perhaps, a sign of an intellect that was otherwise hidden.” And he describes her history as being “veiled”.
To some extent, the reasons for her secrecy and her snobbery are illuminated here. Some scenes feature Humphries at home in London with his fourth wife, Lizzie Spender, who briefly details what she’s learned about his past. He travels to Wiltshire, Kent, Westminster and Hackney in a journey enlivened by his pithy responses, and one which leads him to conclude, “Where shadows fell, light is now shining.”
Who Do You Think You Are is on SBS, Tuesday, May 2, 7.30pm and SBS On Demand.
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