Who Do You Think You Are? (Kate Winslet) – BBC 1

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I thought that this was the best episode of the series so far, despite Kate’s melodramatics. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone with Swedish heritage before: it was like stepping into the world of Vilhelm Moberg’s Karl Oskar and Kristina, and it’s a subject that’s not often covered on English language TV. It was really good to see something different. The military heritage on the other side of her family was interesting too. It had never really occurred to be that the Armed Forces would have been the main employers of musicians before the days of civil orchestras, although it’s really obvious when you think about it! And it’s nice to have an A-lister on the programme: they do sometimes have people whom I’ve barely heard of.  This was a very interesting hour’s TV.

She did overdo it a bit, with the tears and the “I can’t bear it”-ing. OK, it can’t be very pleasant finding out that your long-lost ancestors lived in poverty, had brushes with the law due to stealing food and lost children in infancy, but it’d probably be a similar story for most people’s families. Even those at the top of the social ladder would have been hit by infant deaths, and adults dying young. There were the constant references to her ever-so-‘umble roots, as well. One would have done! But, hey, at least she was interested enough in the social history to get emotional about it.

The story with Kate was that her great-great-grandfather had moved to London from the Halland region of Sweden, becoming a successful tailor on Savile Row. This was fascinating: you think of emigration from Sweden as being to Minnesota and other parts of the American mid-West, not to London. Even Swedish emigration to America isn’t something that’s talked about that much in English language books or TV programmes. So much attention’s paid to emigration from Ireland and, later on, from Italy and the Russian Empire, and yet relatively little’s paid to emigration from Sweden and (then under Swedish rule) Norway, or even to the huge waves of emigration from Germany. I suppose it’s because there wouldn’t have been that much of a cultural or, with Scandinavia and mainly Protestant parts of Germany, religious clash, but it’s certainly a neglected area.

I don’t know what Kate was expecting to find out, but I got the impression that she wasn’t expecting to find that her ancestors’ lives had been so hard.  We think of Sweden, as with Norway and Switzerland, as being a very wealthy country, and forget that that’s a fairly recent development, and how difficult it was historically for countries with very cold weather, very hot weather and or a lot of mountainous terrain, especially at a time of rapid population growth.  The same with the idea of some countries as being particularly liberal, and or as not having a rigid class structure. It hasn’t always been like that.  Take the Netherlands, generally seen as the most liberal-minded country in Europe now, and its centuries of strict Calvinism.

Vilhelm Moberg described life for lower-class people in Sweden in the first half of the nineteenth century so well in The Emigrants, and I kept thinking about that when Kate was learning about her ancestors, although at least there were no religious issues here.  When she was taken to a grand castle type place, she must have wondered if they were aristocrats. But no – her great-great-great-great-grandfather was a worker on the estate, paid in tokens that could only be spent in the estate shop, and ended up dying in prison after being convicted of stealing potatoes, shortly after the death of his infant son.  The family were starving, with Sweden being hit by successive years of food shortages even before the Hungry Forties and the Great Famine of the late 1860s.  Neither of those two major famines came into it, strangely enough – we heard about the early 1830s and the early 1850s, but not the two “big” famines, although that was just because of which dates fitted with major events in the family’s history.

Her great-great-great-grandfather fared better, going into the Navy; and it was brilliant that she was able to see the sort of croft house that he’d have. But her great-great-grandfather was the only one of the three children he and his wife had who survived to adulthood.  He became a tailor, like his father – who’d been booted out of the Navy for embezzlement!  I can’t think of any other episode that’s featured Swedish history, and I really enjoyed it. How brilliant were the records, as well? Very impressed with mid 19th century Swedish record-keeping!

Turning to the other side of her family, she found out that her great-great-great-grandfather had served in the Grenadier Guards, joining up at the age of just 11, during the Napoleonic Wars. After having to leave the Army due to rheumatism, he became the head prison warder at Dartmoor … but, at that time, Dartmoor was seen as a sort of new model prison, with inmates working in gardens and attending classes in all sorts of subjects.

That was interesting as well, but I thought that the really good bit was his time in the Army, starting off as a real life Little Drummer Boy, at a time when the sons of soldiers often joined up as children so as to benefit from the educational and career opportunities offered, and rising to the rank of Drum Major. We’re all familiar with military bands, and the importance of drummers and buglers and fifers in the Army in the 18th and 19th centuries – I’m going to have “Oh, soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me, with your musket, fife and drum?” going through my head for the rest of the day now – but, as with Swedish and German emigration to Britain and America, it’s something that doesn’t get all that much attention, and it’s always nice to see new topics covered on a long-running programme.

I’d love to know how they choose people to go on this programme. Presumably they must do a certain amount of research first, to make sure that they can actually find something out, and that it’s something reasonably interesting. But do they approach the celebs, or do the celebs approach them? Where would you start, when it came to choosing people?   They usually manage to turn up something of interest, but often the socio-economic history behind it is something we’ve heard before, with other people.  But, as I’ve said, I don’t think they’ve shown anyone with Swedish heritage before.  A really good hour’s TV.

Who Do You Think You Are? (Olivia Colman) – BBC 1

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Some episodes of this are better than others; and this, kicking off the new series, was a particularly good one. OK, technically the series started with the Michelle Keegan episode, which was also interesting, but that was shown weeks ago!   The Olivia Colman episode not only included some fascinating “human interest” stories, about the eventful lives of the ancestors of someone who’d said that she hadn’t expected to find too much drama in her family tree, but took us back to the lives of the British in pre-Mutiny India, something we don’t hear nearly enough about.

The Victorians cast a very long shadow, and, given their achievements, rightly so. But that does mean that the attitudes of Georgian times aren’t given enough attention: there can be the idea that the views of “the past” mean the views of the mid to late Victorians.  And Georgian times were very different.  Take Jane Austen’s novels.  Lydia Bennet runs off with Mr Wickham, and lives with him before they’re married.  Maria Rushworth, nee Bertram, leaves her husband and runs off with Henry Crawford.  We hear all about Willoughby’s history of seducing young women – and Wickham wasn’t behind the door in that department either.  Emma’s friend Harriet is “the natural daughter of Someone”.  It’s a long way from the Victorians covering piano legs because even pianos weren’t allowed to show their legs in public!

Then there were attitudes on race and colonialism. It’s a controversial area, and one which it would take hours to go into properly.  But, in the second half of the 19th century, it probably wasn’t very likely that a well-to-do British family would have taken in the mixed race daughter of one of its scions.  The illegitimate mixed race daughter.  Whereas that’s exactly what happened with Olivia Colman’s great-great-great-grandmother, Harriot Slessor – born in a remote part of India in 1807, half a century before the Mutiny, to a British officer and his Indian mistress.

Sadly, her father died when she was only three, and we don’t know what happened to her mother, but Olivia learnt that Harriot’s grandmother had sent for her, paid for her passage to Britain, and given her everything she could. She was nicknamed “India Harriot”: there seems to have been no attempt to cover up her mixed heritage, as there perhaps would have been later on.  Think Anna Leonowens of “The King and I” fame.  OK, what happened to Harriot was only one person’s experience, but it was … well, I was going to say a lovely one, but it was actually rather sad in parts.  Although she was going to a loving family, it was to a strange country and people she didn’t know.  And then her first husband, whom she met on board a ship going back to India, died shortly after their marriage.

It was suggested that her mixed heritage made it difficult for her to find a husband in England, so not everyone was as open-minded as the Slessor family were, but she did marry twice, both to white British men. She and her second husband remained in India for many years, and then retired to the Home Counties, where they lived a comfortable life.  He presumably made money in India and was from a comfortable background anyway, and she inherited a considerable sum of money from a great-aunt.  It doesn’t seem to have bothered her family in the slightest that she was illegitimate or that she was of mixed race.  OK, this was only one person’s experience, and doesn’t necessarily typify the attitudes of the time, but I think it’s a very Georgian/early Victorian story, and I think Harriot’s upbringing may well have been very different had she been born sixty years later.   Thankfully for her, she wasn’t.

I’m not knocking the Victorians, but the image we have of the British in India tends to be that of the later Victorians, and of the first half of the 20th century, and it’s not always very positive, especially in today’s socio-political climate. Books like E M Forster’s A Passage to India perhaps have a lot to do with that.  And the pre-Mutiny British in India tend to be seen as idiots, like Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair.  Stories like that of Harriot Slessor can tell us a lot, and show us that maybe we need to rethink some of the common ideas and images about the British in India.  As the lady who showed Olivia round the area where Harriot was born pointed out, there were many relationships between British men and Indian women back then. Obviously there are books like White Mughals, about mixed race romances, about the 18th century, but it’s still the image of the clubs and the hill stations in late Victorian and early 20th century times that dominate.

There was a lot more in this programme, too. Harriot’s second husband’s father, Olivia’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, had accused his first wife of adultery, and then been granted not only a legal separation but the right to remarry – to a woman with whom he already had two children.  The two children born before their marriage were treated exactly the same as those born after their marriage – and this was in a very middle-class family.  Again, very Georgian!

We also heard about Harriot’s grandmother, also Harriot, and how she’d spent a lot of time in Porto, where her soldier husband was based.   From a human interest viewpoint, we heard – how wonderful to be able to read your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s letters! – about her sadness at leaving her elderly mother behind in Britain, and her sons at British boarding schools … something else we associate with Victorian and early twentieth century times, and which we need to remember went back well before that.  It was also a reminder of the longstanding bond between England/Britain and the very lovely city of Porto, and the very lovely country of Portugal generally.  Harriot’s husband was in the army, whereas a lot of the Brits based in Porto were there because of the port wine, but that’s another story!

Finally, we learnt that the elder Harriot’s mother had been born in Paris and come to Britain as a Huguenot refugee. That was well into the 18th century, so long after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the main wave of Huguenot emigration from France to the British Isles and elsewhere, but that just went to show that the issue of religion in France continued to be an issue even into the 1720s/1730s.  The distant relative who told Olivia about their common ancestor made the point that the Huguenots were the first group of people to be termed “refugees”.  This was right at the end of the programme, and we didn’t hear very much about this lady, but the whole subject of people moving around between England, Scotland, Ireland, France  and Low Countries, over a long period from the middle of the 16th century to the start of the 18th century – in fact, the middle of the 18th  century, if you include the people who left Scotland after Culloden – for religious and political reasons, often linked, is fascinating, and something we don’t hear enough about.

Mostly it was fairly small groups of people, but around 50,000 Huguenots came to the British Isles. Their influence on the textile and cutlery-making industries here, and the watch-making industry in Switzerland, was just immense.  Britain and Switzerland’s gain, and France’s loss.  There was quite a lot of immigration at that time – people moved from the Netherlands to Britain with William of Orange, and they included Jews as well as Protestants.  And, in 1709, 13,000 migrants from Germany – dubbed “the Palatines” as some of them came from the Palatinate – arrived in Britain, claiming that they were refugees, but it turned out that a lot of them were economic migrants, and there were social issues because most of them were poor and unskilled, many of them were Catholics when they’d claimed to be Protestants fleeing persecution.  There was a big row over immigration policy, and the difference between refugees and economic migrants …  some things don’t change!

But the Huguenot immigration does generally seem to have gone really well, and it would’ve been interesting to hear more about Olivia’s Huguenot ancestor.  However, you can only fit so much into an hour’s episode, and the story of her Eurasian (Anglo-Indian originally meant “British living in India”, with “Eurasian” being the term for someone of mixed heritage) great-great-great-grandmother and how well her life turned out was absolutely fascinating.  And Olivia had had no idea that her family had any connection with India at all.  Who knows what there might be in anyone’s family history that they have no idea about?  It’s just great when this programme can uncover something completely unexpected like that.  Wonderful episode.