Jodie Whittaker, by her own admission, is a shat lass. She tells us so at the beginning of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One), as she drives through the Yorkshire Dales chattering away about growing up in Skelmanthorpe. All locals there refer to the village as “shat”, she reveals, hence the nickname. Phew. That could have been awkward.
It’s the Doctor Who star’s down-to-earth charm that makes her the ideal person to bring back the BBC genealogy show for its 17th series. Just like her beloved Time Lord, Whittaker has endless enthusiasm as she travels through space and time, uncovering the tales of her ancestry. Full of vim and a curiosity to know every last detail, she’s infectious company. In one scene, she can be seen cackling with her mother on discovering her great grandfather was “a bit posh” – “and then look at us!” she laughs.
But there’s poignancy, too, of course – take the scene in which Whittaker gasps, tears in her eyes, while reading aloud the desperate account of a soldier in the First World War.
First, Whittaker retraces the steps of her great uncle Walter. She learns that he might have been conceived as a result of a much older man taking advantage of her great grandmother, a 16-year-old servant, and that she was probably forced to travel across the country alone, disgraced and carrying an illegitimate child. Walter, they suspect, was then raised by his grandmother, before fighting in the First World War and dying young.
From there, Whittaker moves on to some more uncomfortable history, on the maternal side, when she learns about her great-grandfather being a strike breaker in the 1920s. “Living here during the Eighties,” she says, “the idea that you work through a strike feels like it goes against everything you are brought up to believe in.”
Who Do You Think You Are? is a lovely, cosy show that allows us to judge celebrities by their parents’ cardigans and wallpapers. Kudos to Whittaker on that front. But it’s also quite spectacular. On paper, most people’s family histories are pretty dry – but this series always manages to resurrect figures from the past in a way that everyone can connect with. Especially when you have people like Whittaker at the centre of it, saying things about soldiers such as: “He was bricking it but he did it – that’s a hero to me.”