The BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? has spawned an entire sub-genre of celebrity genealogy documentaries. Channel 4 is currently airing My Grandparent’s War, while ITV has DNA Journey (ITV) in which pairs of famous people explore their family trees and get prodded by producers to cry on camera.
It returned for another run with Rob Beckett and Romesh Ranganathan, comedians and best mates, embarking on a round-Britain road trip to find ancestors they never knew existed. This was a quest full of laughter and, yes, those producer-pleasing tears.
Bromley boy Beckett feared what he’d find in his family’s past. “I’m worried about horrific poverty and some sort of criminality,” he confessed. Naturally, that’s precisely what turned up. In the mid-19th century, the Becketts slept 15 to a house in Winchester, where eldest son George was imprisoned for robbery and assaulting a policeman.
Happily, George’s younger brother, Frederick, escaped his rough roots to make something of himself. He joined the crew of HMS Victory, taught himself to read and write, won medals in the Crimean War and worked his way up to become a non-commissioned officer. Upon leaving the Navy, he became a teacher, parish councillor and pillar of the community. “Didn’t he do well?” as Rob’s mother put it, channelling Bruce Forsyth. Her son wept with pride and not a little relief.
Investigating Ranganathan’s roots was rather trickier, with the pandemic and civil unrest ruling out a trip to Sri Lanka. Instead he met a long-lost cousin, who his mother Shanthi joked was an upgrade on Romesh. He also discovered that his bloodline had been pure South Asian for 25,000 years, until his parents emigrated in 1975. “Imagine breaking a 25,000-year streak to arrive in Crawley,” he deadpanned.
Ranganathan’s story also got a happy ending. He learnt that his great-great-grandfather had been a trailblazing Ayurvedic doctor and his family had built an ornate Tamil Hindi temple which they still ran today. Ranganathan felt connected to his ancestral homeland like never before, even if it provided further proof for Shanthi that he was a “non-doctor and disappointment”.
DNA Journey lacks the social history segments and classy production values of its BBC rival. Neither was this episode helped by travel restrictions meaning a lack of actual journey. However, the pair had terrific chemistry, teasing each other mercilessly but palpably pleased at one another’s happy news. Unexpectedly moving and ultimately rather inspirational.