Wednesday 6 June 2012

Is There Too Much About The War In Family History TV?

Last night the final episode of War Hero in My Family was broadcast on Channel 5 (UK).  The series followed twelve celebrities as they uncovered the part their relatives played in the Second World War.
The TV series Find My Past, which was broadcast towards the end of last year, took a different approach by connecting ordinary people to famous events in which their ancestors or relatives had been involved.  Of the ten episodes, three were concerned with events during the Second World War and one with the First World War.
Whilst it’s great to see more family history programmes being made, as someone who doesn’t have a particular interest in military history, I found the war related episodes of ‘Find My Past’ to be the least interesting and wasn’t attracted to the idea of ‘War Hero in My Family’.  However, the programme received an overwhelmingly positive response on social media and so I thought I should give it a try.
So far I’ve watched two episodes (the whole series is available through Demand 5 but only to those in the UK) but these failed to capture my interest and I can’t help wondering, am I the only one who finds all these war stories a bit samey? Even a bit dull?
I think much of my lack of interest can be traced back to school history lessons.  The prevailing belief at the time seemed to be that 20th century history is more relevant to young people than earlier periods, with the result that most of my contemporaries left school bored to tears with studying the Treaty of Versailles and writing essays on the causes of the First World War and with practically no knowledge of anything that happened prior to the 1900s.
Of course I can see why military history, and World War II in particular, appeals to programme makers: dramatic stories featuring life or death situations which can be illustrated with photographs, film footage and often interviews with survivors who witnessed the events firsthand.  Such sources simply don’t exist for earlier periods and ‘Ag Lab in My Family’ or ‘Domestic Servant in My Family’ would hardly have the same appeal!
Funnily enough, I did enjoy the episodes in more recent series of Who Do You Think You Are (UK) which focussed on only one or two ancestors (rather than tracing a whole family line) often in the 20th century and sometimes involving the two World Wars (not unlike ‘War Hero in My Family’).  Whilst some criticised these for a lack of ‘proper genealogy’, I felt that these illustrated what 'Who Do You Think You Are' (WDYTYA) does well: namely, demonstrating the breadth and range of family history.  WDYTYA has shown that tracing family history is not restricted to those with White European origins and that it can involve learning about recent relatives as much as about those who lived hundreds of years ago.  
Whilst some series of WDYTYA have been more varied than others, the episodes featuring wartime ancestors have tended to contrast with previous and subsequent episodes in the same series in terms of geography and time period.  Conversely, ‘Find My Past’ made the decision to broadcast the World War II stories as episodes 1, 3 and 4.  I’m sure this ‘turned off’ some viewers to the series who might have enjoyed later episodes such as ‘Suffragettes’ or ‘Royal Scandal’.
Genealogy has long since lost its preoccupation with male lines of descent but, inevitably when the focus is on military history, it is the stories of men which predominate.  Whilst women do feature, for example the work of a female plotter with the WAAF was explored in the ‘Battle of Britain’ episode of ‘Find My Past’, theirs are at best supporting roles.
I’m certainly not saying, “Don’t mention the war”.  There are some fantastic tales to be told concerning our ancestors in the First and Second World Wars and it is particularly important to capture stories from World War II whilst some of those involved are still with us.
My concern is that the current crop of family history programming, sponsored by the major commercial companies and and to some extent the public face of genealogy, may be putting people off learning more about their family history.  Just as my schoolfriends and I grew tired of learning ad infinitum about the world wars and in some cases were put off studying history all together, those with little interest in military history, or whose ancestors did not play a major part in the wars, may conclude that family history is not for them.
Family history is such a broad and varied field of study and there is little human activity that does not fall within its bounds.  It would be nice to see this reflected in family history programming.  To misquote John Lennon, “All I am saying is give peace a chance”.
Oh, and please, can we have a little bit more about women?!


  1. Great post, Kirsty. I agree completely. I didn't enjoy history at school at all, didn't even take GCSE, and now, like yourself, it's my job and passion!

  2. I absolutely agree with the amount of WWII history programmes. There's been so many over the years, that they're just talking about the same things over again. My parents lived through the war, and even they've wondered if anything else happened in history with all these programmes.

  3. Great post. I love learning about the life styles and challenges that my family had, but the women's lives are pigeon holed it seems to me to those of the upper levels of society. They rarely talk or show the lives of women who worked at home or raised their children alone after loss of husbands. I personally think that it would be refreshing to see a mom who overcomes.

  4. If you are not interested in war stories, then don't watch a show called "War Hero in My Family". There are many good shows that do show varied areas of interest within family history, Ancestors in the Attic is a good one. To criticize this area of family history that is so important to millions of people is pathetic! Millions of people were affected by war whether a soldier or a civilian. Towns devastated, hardships that we cannot possibly understand, rations, evacuations, air raids, bombing, etc. etc. Your a genealogist who wants to exclude a major part of history! Pathetic, and I certainly would never hire you. How can you not be interested in military history, surely someone in your family was involved or affected by the wars.

    1. In reply to the previous comment by Anonymous:

      In my post I wrote that I do not have "a particular interest in military history". I in no way implied that I wished to exclude a major part of history, as you suggest. Military records are an important genealogical source which I have used in both my personal and professional research.

      My criticism was not aimed at the study of military history, nor at those who enjoy researching their military ancestors and watching military history programmes. I am very happy to see their interests catered for. I would simply like to see a more diverse range of family history programming on television, however I appreciate that the limited funding for such programmes is a major restriction.

      The comments I have received both on this blog and through Twitter indicate that many people would like to see greater coverage of women's history on television. I am sure that there are many other areas of history which have been equally neglected, indeed there is little coverage of military history prior to the 20th Century. Unfortunately, in all genres of television, there is a tendency to repeat the same formula over and over again and family history is no exception!

  5. I think if you're not interested in the subject matter i.e. military history, it will be difficult to fall for any such series hook, line and sinker, so on that I would have to disagree, as personally I can't get enough of it!

    I agree about the need for more family history about women, ag labs, domestic servants etc though, but unfortunately these are not likely to be forthcoming too easily – and if they do, it will be in some patronising “reality TV” drivel of some sort – the 1940s House, that sort of thing. For my sins I spent a few years in the past working in a BBC Scotland programme development team, and the bottom line is not the lack of ambition of programme makers to come up with good ideas on a sweep of history - and believe me, I and many others tried! - it was the fundamental lack of ambition of the commissioners to commit to anything that they perceived to go beyond their safe comfort zone in terms of getting the audience numbers through. Commissioners have absolutely no ambition. On one occasion I was asked by a London based commissioner to develop an idea for a doc on Bonnie Prince Charlie - I kept trying to make it about what happened after Culloden, the story no-one ever tells but which is equally extraordinary, and after 18 drafts - 18 drafts - they finally said no. Too unsafe. As such, often what it boils down to these days is the same subject matter trodden over, and the issue becomes whether what is produced is done well or not.

    FMP as a history series was actually really cheap and rushed, and at times showed it - but at least it tried to get the public connection to history flagged up more, rather than celebrity. The subject matter for each programme was actually fairly pedestrian - but I do agree it did not help to show so many military subjects in a row for a series supposedly covering such a broad sweep. Poor scheduling, which I suspect was about which shows were ready first, as it was turned around unbelievably quickly after it had been commissioned.

    With War Hero in My Family, I'd have to disagree in that although the subjects were about WW2, most episodes had something of a slight twist to them, and each was just beautifully produced, directed, researched, edited and more. I learned a heck of a lot from them that I did not know before, something I've not often found from WDYTYA when it does the war - there was a time when it felt that WDYTYA was working to an annual checklist, though I do agree more recent series have improved. As an example of the genre, War Hero to me shone - if the same team could do something similar for women's history, ag labs, domestic service etc, I suspect it would equally shine - but I doubt they would ever be commissioned, sadly.

    Television in many ways has done history a major dis-service in the last 15 years. I've noted in the last few days on Twitter a campaign to keep history programming on BBC4 - I remember when we were desperately trying to fight to stop history going from BBC2 to BBC4 in the first place, as we thought it would be too niche, with history going from a populist channel to one for created for a much more niche audience worried about the dropping arts content. As a niche channel, virtually no-one watches it still - and hence why it is easier for the Beeb to justify losing it. It's been a self-fulfilling prophecy. In some ways if BBC4 goes, I’d love to see BBC2 reclaim the territory – but I’m not optimistic!

  6. It may be a female thing, Kirsty. I agree with you but I also think that too much of any topic gets to be repetitious and mundane. The slaves, the military, pilgrims and pioneers. For me it is more about diversity across the series as opposed to one topic over and over and over....
    We had an interesting episode run over here that unveiled a British Home Child. A topic close to my heart, but again, I wouldn't want every episode to be about them. After a while, they read like a Catherine Cookson novel - change the characters names and the odd village, but essentially the stories are all the same.

  7. Kirsty, sorry about the school history lessons! I did 20th century history at O-Level (as it was in those days!) but with a brilliant teacher. I was interested enough to study the same period at university, but I still agree with most of what you say. Like you I don't have a particular interest in military history, but it does come as part of the territory when it comes to family history.

    Military history is certainly popular with many people, which is fine, but there is plenty more potentially interesting material on non-military subjects that would make excellent programmes or series. I think Chris hit the nail on the head when he said that TV just likes to commission 'more of same' which applies to family history shows as much as anything else.

    Military service records are plentiful and easier to research than many others, and most British people have close family members or ancestors who served in 20th century conflicts. This makes the First or Second World War story a good bet for high audience ratings. On the plus side, the last series of WDYTYA was very good and wide-ranging, and hopefully the next series of Find My Past will be an improvement on the first, it has the potential.

    But brace yourself Kirsty, because in 2 years time it will be the centenary of You Know What. I think we ain't seen nothin' yet!

  8. First of all, just found you on Twitter and have added your blog feed to my Google Reader. Looking forward to more articles.

    I can agree to a certain extent; there does seem to be a lot of focus on wartime stories in genealogy programs; it would be nice to have a better range of subjects covered. Most of us do just have "Ag Labs". I haven't watched any of the War Hero in My Family shows yet, but I have seen all of WDYTYA and caught a few of Find My Past episodes. I liked the different approach of the FMP show and I may watch a couple of the War Hero shows to see what I think.

    However, one of the FMP shows I did watch I did enjoy because I can personally relate it to my personal family history: my maternal grandfather was captured as a POW at Boulogne in WW2, and was held prisoner for 5 years, having to march hundreds of miles across Europe during "The March"; his father was killed in action during WW1 aged just 28; his father in law fought in the RAF in both World Wars, also being captured as a POW in WW2, being held at Stalag Luft III (made famous by The Great Escape); and my paternal grandfather fought in WW2 in India and Burma.

    So I have a fair few connections with the World Wars. If a TV program covers an event that I know that one of my ancestors were involved in, then I will watch it.

  9. In my previous comment I said "I agree about the need for more family history about women, ag labs, domestic servants etc though, but unfortunately these are not likely to be forthcoming too easily – and if they do, it will be in some patronising 'reality TV' drivel of some sort – the 1940s House, that sort of thing."

    Just read the following article in the Telegraph about a new BBC show coming soon called Turn Back Time: The Family - see

    I think I rest my case m'lud! :) lol


    1. Your predictions were impressively accurate, Chris! Maybe 'Turn Back Time: The Family' will at least show that the ordinary lives of ordinary ancestors can be interesting, although I won't get my hopes up too much!