Family tree

· culture ·

I'm generally rabidly averse to any TV programme with a significant 'celebrity' element (Celebrity Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here, Celebrity Strictly Come Dancing, or whatever it is), but I've been really enjoying Who Do You Think You Are?. I suspect that's because it's not really about celebrities at all, but rather about the fascinating lives of the extraordinary, ordinary people who happen to be our ancestors. The celebrities seem to be there to draw in viewers who would normally have no interest in genealogy, and also to provide a presenter who is fairly comfortable and articulate in front of the camera.

The idea behind the series (for those who haven't seen it) is that that they investigate the family tree of a celebrity, tracing back interesting stories as far as they can, and in the process revealing some very interesting things about social history. You tend to forget that the subject of the programme is famous after a while, and become fascinated by the lives of their ancestors.

Jeremy Paxman's family on both his mother's and father's side had a very hard time: his maternal great-great-grandmother was widowed and ended up on poor relief, only to have even that tiny amount of financial support removed when she committed the great sin of having a child out of wedlock. On his father's side, his great-grandfather and great-grandmother both died young (of TB), leaving his grandfather an orphan at the age of 10. Arthur Paxman started out at a huge disadvantage, but managed to work his way up in the world to become reasonably wealthy and send his son (Jeremy's father) to public school.

In the following week's programme, Sheila Hancock was trying to track down the identity of the mysterious 'Madam Zurhorst': an exotic-looking woman whose portrait had been handed down to Sheila by her mother. It was a gripping story, full of twists and turns, but Madam Zurhorst turned out to be Ann-Judith Zurhorst, Sheila's great-great-great-grandmother. Ann-Judith was seemingly quite a formidable woman, in the linen trading business independently (in the 1830s!) and with uncountable hordes of children. It was a rather wonderful moment when Sheila managed to find Ann-Judith's grave in Guernsey and so complete the story.

All of the stories in the series bring home a couple of important points. One is that tiny flutters of fate can determine the course of our family history. It's obvious when you think about it, but the chances of us being here, and who we are, right now are tiny. The second is that, however much we moan about the pressures of modern life, we are unbelievably lucky to live in the time and place that we do. Our ancestors had incredibly hard lives, faced discrimination, physical hardship, war, danger and disease, and yet somehow made it through.