wed 19/06/2024

Who Do You Think You Are? - June Brown, BBC One | reviews, news & interviews

Who Do You Think You Are? - June Brown, BBC One

Who Do You Think You Are? - June Brown, BBC One

June Brown knows who she is - back to the 17th century

June Brown knows who she's been for 400 yearsBBC

Your typical consumer of Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC One would almost certainly have been disappointed by last night's first instalment of the eighth series. There were no tears from June Brown, EastEnders' Dot Cotton, for a start. That is as it should be: what we got was a model of keen yet detached historical research, nothing from which Brown was going to take life-changing lessons, which is how facile this series can be.

This programme was intriguing first off because it was not looking at even vaguely recent history; Brown started with her (forgive me if I get this wrong) great-great-great-grandfather, a champion bare-knuckle fighter from the East End in the early 19th century called Isaac Bitton. Brown was well aware of her Jewish heritage, although she never practised, but she was keen to learn about Bitton's experiences in the sport aristocrats used to go slumming to see. He was undefeated, much like Dot Cotton.

Bitton must have been an ox - several contemporary portraits confirm this - as he once went 74 rounds with an opponent. Boxing was one of the few routes available to Jews, as to black and Irish people, to fame and wealth, and clearly East End popular entertainment runs in the genes. Hard times fell on Bitton as charity records from London's oldest Sephardic synagogue, Bevis Marks, showed; he ended up reliant on handouts by his death. The records kept by the synagogue are extraordinary - a social, cultural, religious history of centuries in dozens of ledgers.

Brown tracked Bitton's story further, to his and his father's emigration from Amsterdam soon after the Anglo-Dutch War of 1780-4. (This was a new war on me: apparently the British were angry with the Dutch for supporting George Washington.) They left behind his mother and his siblings, all of whom died before her, and the closest Brown came to breaching her no-tears rule was when she put down a sunflower, a copy of a drawing of Isaac Bitton and a stone, per Jewish custom, on Rachel's grave. Well, what she had chosen as Rachel's grave: they had identified the row in the cemetery, but, in quite an actressy manner, she declared that this spot would be it.

Extraordinarily, Brown did not leave it in the mid-18th century but went back even further, to her (I'm going to get this wrong) great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, who lived in Oran in Spanish North Africa. This was by far the most dramatic story: a cruel, ambitious governor, institutional anti-Semitism and a 1669 decree for the expulsion of all the Jews, even successful merchants and fixers like Brown's ancestors. They no longer had "utilidad" to the community. The procession of the Jews down to the harbour, where the governor had kindly arranged ships to take the rich ones to Nice, the poor ones on to Livorno (where Brown's family ended up), was devastatingly described even in a work of contemporary propaganda.

The parallels between that 17th-century expulsion of the Jews and those which preceded and followed it - from Edward I in England to the Nazis in Germany - were left unmentioned, but they were a bitter backbone which was nonetheless there. This was just, the programme implied, one more episode in a history of rootlessness, or rather the putting down and ripping up of roots, a history of endeavour fruitful then scorched. It is, of course, also a history of survival. Brown, perhaps glibly, sees "a collective race memory" in her own inability to settle in one place, but the theme is certainly correct.

I have some reservations about this series - all the research is pre-done, so why put documents out for Brown to "discover" things herself? - and the emotional pornography aspect, which Brown did not play up to, is disturbing. But at its best, it makes us less selfish, considering those who came before rather than just our present situation.


What was intriguing was that in many of these programmes more than one strand of the family history is followed. Whilst I can understand June not wanting to know about the murky history of her Scots Brown ancestry one other caught my eye. Early in the programme she passed off any possibility of aristocrats in the family. Yet one grandfather was Irish with the surname Butler. Butler's were and maybe still are amongst the grandest of Irish families. Was her's one of these? All too possible.

I haven't seen the latest "Who do you think you are?" featuring June Brown, but I have seen a number of previous episodes and have come to the conclusion that the celebrities chosen always seem to have something unusual, criminal or dramatic in their ancestry. The powers-that-be are unlikely to choose a celebrity whose ancestors were all models of respectability and lived in the same village from century to century.

Thought she was very rude and totally disinterested. Ordinary people have to pay good money to have this research done without the travel to their ancestors' lands but I found her to be very dismissive and not interested

Interesting comments, thanks. @Demetrius - clearly some people are lucky enough to come from lots of notable, traceable lines. Maybe they should give her an entire series of the show! @Barbs - you're not Barbara Windsor by any chance, getting revenge on June Brown for scene-stealing in EastEnders?

@Jean Collen-I have also seen a few previous episodes of WDYTYA.Is it not usual for most people to have something unusual,criminal or dramatic in their ancestry,as well as celebs?most families I know of have skeletons in their ancestral cupboards,even those apparently respectable ones.Celebs are really not much different from ordinary folk,these days.

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