Gene Detectives

Wednesday, February 28, 2007 by

Genealogy. Historically, it’s tricky TV.

While it’s not as malevolent a concept as Burchill wannabe controversialist Zoe Williams contended in a recent Guardian piece, it’s nonetheless awkward. Its very nature titillates the vanity and insecurity of those who are even more ashamed or afraid of their own ordinariness than most of us. Much as metempsychotics regard reincarnation as a link to forgotten aristocracy and pre-eminence (notice how few ever remember being shit-shovellers in the Augean stables, and how many recall being Hercules), plenty of family-tree-surgeons are the same. Many of the thousands ransacking our resource bases for their ancestries are chasing illusory grandeur and stowed loot.

It’s fair to say, though, that many other diggers are inspired by little more than curiosity or, more poignantly, a craving for “closure”, to cleave to what they regard as a “whole”, ie. a family, be it through the agency of a mislaid sibling or recalcitrant runaway parent. Cue Gene Detectives. This is daytime TV, after all.

Williams was at least on target in claiming that TV’s handling of genealogy has thus far been clod-hoppingly awful. Instead of carefully assembling a series as much about its science, history and practise and its lurking Pandora’s Box of dark emotions as on individual cases, TV muscled in on the scene in 2004 with – what else? – celebrities doing our vicarious time travel for us. On the BBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? the not-at-all-overexposed likes of Bill Oddie, Tony Robinson and others all found that, unsurprisingly, there was as much ho-hum as oh-Christ in the family closet. Rather like the discoveries most of us make when investigating all but the most incestuously-pleached family trees, in fact.

Which begged the all-too-inevitable question; why use celebs in the first place?

Even more inevitable was ITV1′s moronic rip-off of the format, You Don’t Know You’re Born, in which the likes of Anne Kirkbride didn’t just uncover their forebears but – don’t you wish you’d been at the planning meeting that dreamt this one up? – had a go at their jobs too. Brilliant! Ken Stott pretending to be a Highland haberdasher for 15 minutes of prime time. It’s a winner.

Gene Detectives, meanwhile, was to redress the balance in favour of the ordinary Joe and Josephine, a just-folks delve into just-folks’ lives. But the allure of genealogy is, as we’ve seen, often precisely the antipode of the ordinary … not happening on the Queen of Sheba as a great-aunt, necessarily, but the element of novelty and surprise. People are amused and delighted that the apparently ordered kaleidoscopes of their lives are actually the chance confluence of difference and individuality.

In millions of lives, there can be, for example, rafts of characters. Uncle Tony the King Cockler sucked to his death on the mudflats at Weston; sherry-bibbing aunt Meg, the communist candidate; her son Batty Bertram who tried to fly off the multi-storey carpark. What about great great uncle Eddie, deserted from the Dardanelles, finest ices in Hunstanton (full dairy cream, mark you); and that lost cousin who broke his neck at a TT meet? Fill in the names, the places.

On Gene Detectives what we get are people distinguished by their absolute lack of distinction, who can be relied upon to tick all the lifestyle boxes. The problem, of course, is that the whole thrust of mainstream daytime TV means that “ordinary people” fit a singularly circumscribed template.

They all have cars, mobiles, broadband, kiddies, Sky. Bluewater or Lakeside is treated as a “day out”. Nobody has airs or foreign languages. They don’t want to put the screen through at identikit morning TV programmes who repeat stings and show idents every two minutes and maintain a susurrus of trip-hoppy lifestyle stock music. Neither ugly nor beautiful, they are focus-group fodder, the sort of people who actually sit down and obey those orders to “text us your opinion now”. Transgression chez eux features as material for TV only when it is the target for correction, as per obesity, chain-smoking, kiddie-fiddling. Their behaviour can be relied to slot neatly into a seamless narrative driven by verbal and visual discourses from soaps and supermarket magazines. Adultery and abandonment are thus OK story elements; they are now common enough to be socially normative. They are “inclusive” strands of a plot in a way domestic violence or long-term psychological deviancy (two frequent occupational hazards of any real genealogical investigation) are deemed not.

Not only must the subjects of the programmes be anonymous, colourless – so must their pasts.

An extra criterion of unspoken cynicism at work is that the subjects are often clearly selected because they are emotionally incontinent or just plain vulnerable. “Tom’s an emotional sort of feller”, we’re told, as he prepares to meet his long-lost sister, rugged lip a-tremble. Would he have even been considered were he not?

Gene Detective no. 1 is the genial, epicene Anthony Adolph, a blameless enough bod often seen marching down city streets wearing expensive coats, mobile taped to ear. There are a lot of soft-spoken “caring professionals” helping us through the difficult technical bits like face mapping, although this is the sort of programme where just a single utterance of “DNA” bestows immediate and unarguable scientific credibility. A “counselor” (wouldn’t you know?) is always at hand, and, weirdly, so is Melanie Sykes, touchy-feely enough to be chucked out of the Scientologists.

“Are you sure you’re ready?” she coos to the expectant searcher as the doors part, massaging his or her shoulders like a hooker trying to raise a novice’s tadger.

Here comes the daytime producer’s money-shot, the sobbing clinch. It’s genuinely emetic; oh for Roger Mellie to bellow, “Well, you’d fucking better be ready, mate, cos there’s a whole crew here on overtime.”

Unlike most upsettingly bad and cheap shows, there is at least a half-decent programme hollering to be let out of Gene Detectives, like an up-the-duff waif dispatched secretly to an asylum from a shamed hearth. Adolph is a naturally engaging fellow, admirably patient in this cheapshot world of easy answers and flick-switch waterworks. One of these days – who knows? – he might have graduate, Gene Dd to what he’s worth and will feature retrospectively on a “Lifestyle TV family trees” show – or at worst, a sniggering aside on a Before They Were Famous special. As genealogical researchers often find out, there are some parts of our pasts we actively want to forget.

For the sake of his career, Adolph should want to forget this mess, and pronto.


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