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 Ancestry.co.uk and FindMyPast.co.uk 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?!