I have to say, ordinarily, I’m not a huge fan of this show. I’ve never quite seen the appeal of watching someone else discover their ancestral roots, but my opinion changed during last night’s first outing of the new series in which Davina McCall climbed her family tree and discovered some of the branches from which her own genetic acorn fell.
And what extraordinary branches they were! Davina’s mother – from whom she was sadly estranged – was French, and Davina’s maternal great grandfather, it turned out, was Celestin Hennion, who was not only Head of the French police but also an unwavering advocate for the morally right and just.
He unflinchingly defended a man who was accused of being a traitor, and even though that allegiance could’ve ultimately destroyed Celestin and all he’d built by way of a career, he stood for what he believed in and stood by those he believed in.
On the paternal English side of her family, another fascinating discovery was that Davina’s great great, great, great-grandfather, James Thomas Bedborough, was possibly one of several illegitimate sons of George IV. He was also an entrepreneur who built from scratch some of London’s most prestigious addresses but who, Davina learned, was ultimately to lose everything and leave a legacy to his sons that was such an onerous burden, two of those sons took their own lives because of it.
But for me, the most interesting part of this programme was in looking at Davina – who’s always been a hero figure to me – and seeing quite clearly, through the strengths and weaknesses of her ancestors, how she’s come to be the person she is.
I’ve long admired her for her strength in giving up her drug and booze addictions, for her clear love of her family, for her dogged hard work in building her career and most of all, because throughout all that, she is utterly approachable, down to earth and very compassionate.
Her body language gives a great deal of that away and her openness and honesty about her past reveals yet more, and having seen how some of her ancestors lived, one can see how she got her intelligence, determination and ambition as well as her compassion.
And it was very touching last night to hear her talking so openly about how having parents in two separate countries affected her childhood. Her mother lived in France while her father and his family lived in England. Davina was raised by her father’s mother Pippy but she spent school holidays in France with her mother.
When Davina met with her mother’s cousin in France, it was a very emotional moment as Davina wept and clung to this lady who reminded her such a lot of her own mother. It was evident throughout that Davina still struggles to reconcile her feelings about the turbulent relationship she had with her mother, but her excitement and joy at each new discovery was infectious. And oddly, as she found out more and more about her family, I felt a peculiar sense of vicarious pride for her.
Davina’s so well known to us through her on-screen presence that it felt rather like watching your best friend undertake a similar voyage of discovery, and it also felt like I was sharing in the ups and downs of that journey, as I would’ve with a good friend. I think that’s why this particular edition of the show was far more appealing for me than it ordinarily is.
If you missed it, you can watch it here on BBC iPlayer, and if you’re a fan of Davina’s, it really is worth watching.