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Critical Studies in Television: scholarly studies of small screen fictions

Editorial board: Kim Akass, Stephen Lacey, David Lavery, Janet McCabe, Robin Nelson and Rhonda V. Wilcox.

Performing personality as emotion and authenticity in Who Do You Think You Are?

James Bennett
London Metropolitan University

Amy Holdsworth
University of Warwick

Who Do You Think You Are? (WDYTYA?) was BBC2’s highest ratings success of 2004, gathering an average audience of over five million viewers. A second series was quickly commissioned and aired at the beginning of 2006. The format retained its popularity with similar ratings, and a third outing for the series transferred to BBC1 in autumn 2006. The series predominantly follows British television personalities (TVPs), as well as television actors and other prominent figures in the British media industry (such as Gurinder Chadha), as they trace their individual family tree. The series situate these genealogical excavations within broader histories of Britain and British national identity, engaging with a more encompassing notion of both. This is underlined by the selection of TVPs for the series, with the first season including portraits of more complex British identities, such as David Baddiel (British-Jewish) and Moira Stewart (British-Afro-Caribbean), alongside more ‘traditional’ notions of British identity, such as Jeremy Clarkson’s white Anglo-Saxon background of industrial prosperity. As the BBC’s publicity suggested, the series would attempt to weave personal histories with a broader social history of Britain:

The ancestors of these well-known faces were part of the warp and weft of the fabric of Britain’s social history, just as the ancestors of everyone had their part to play (BBC Press Office, 2004).

In its address to a wider audience, the TVP’s history becomes a paradigm through which to explore other issues related to British history, creating a sense that British identity is constituted through a variety of experiences. However, in doing so the series also promises to unearth, or reveal, the ‘authentic’ self of the TVPs involved – stripping back the performance audiences normally expect from them.

In these terms, what is interesting about WDYTYA? is the way in which it challenges prevailing assumptions about the TVP and their apparent authenticity by requiring the TVP to reveal more of their ordinary, authentic self through excavating their family history. As Deborah Jermyn’s entry in this TV shorts series observes, the distinction between television’s prominent performers and those of the film industry is figured in terms of the ‘TVP’ as opposed to the ‘star’ of film theory, where the former possesses a ‘just-as-they-are-ness’, tied to the intimacy of the television apparatus. As a result, onscreen appearances of TVPs are supposed to be – at least for the audience – authentic depictions of their ordinary selves, ‘Jeremy Paxman’ or ‘Bill Oddie’, without the inverted commas. This is a distinction that owes much to John Ellis (1982) and his work on the different apparatus’ construction of fame but is in need of radical review. Ellis’ account of cinematic stars in Visible Fictions suggests that their phenomenology is based on their un-attainability and simultaneous ordinariness, which is maintained by the presence-absence of the cinematic apparatus. Ellis therefore effectively rules out the possibility of a star system within television, whose performers are simply ordinary.

Karen Lury’s work on TVP performance (1996) is a more useful starting point, noting as it does the constructed-ness of the TVP’s onscreen persona. Discussing the distinction between television personality and television actor, Lury suggests that the two are

[inextricably] entangled, and individuals may oscillate from one position to another. The actor may perform as a celebrity when they guest on a game show, whereas the celebrity may act in a dramatic fiction. On top of this … the personality is always in some sense ‘acting’ (1995-96: 117).

We argue here that by paying attention to this ‘acting’ as a site of performance, one can understand the TVP as a complex site of meaning that should not simply be reduced to a ‘just-as-they-are-ness, for this subverts both a site of genuine pleasure and skill in the text as well as their ideological and social functioning.

WDYTYA? provides a compelling case study for such a review. It calls into question our assumptions concerning the authenticity of the TVP as it challenges the ‘just-as-they-are-ness’ of an onscreen appearance already established elsewhere. It does this by seeking to unearth deeper layers and complexities of the TVP’s persona: to separate the ‘televisual self’ from the ‘authentic self’ as constituted by family relations, genealogy and most importantly, emotionality. That is, in order to successfully trace their family histories the personalities must genuinely remember bygone events and people, often resulting in raw moments of emotionality that can be read as revealing hitherto unknown elements of their ordinary, everyday, authentic selves. However, there is also a corollary element of performance required in order to produce a successful programme: the personality should produce a skilled performance to sustain audience attention, presenting their well-known televisual selves by foregrounding familiar traits, such as Ian Hislop’s dry wit as constructed by his panellist role in Have I Got News for You, or Jeremy Clarkson’s rants about anything non-industrial, which reflect his testosterone-fuelled performances on Top Gear. This oscillation between raw emotion and performance makes a distinction between the televisual self and the authentic self that helps separate the TVP’s image from a ‘just-as-they-are-ness’ allowing us to understand their screen appearances as constructed performance.

Furthermore by paying attention to these moments of ‘emotionality’, we argue that the emphasis on moments of dramatic ‘revelation’, akin to those Rachel Moseley (2001) and Charlotte Brunsdon (2001) discuss in makeover programming, complicates the public service value of the social history Who Do You Think You Are? seeks to unearth. As a result, these moments of emotionality might be understood as constructed, or rather manipulated, to the extent that they are likely to lead to a change in the programme’s format as it becomes more about the TVP and these various revelations rather than the investigation of social history. These displays of emotionality are largely tied to gender that link the programme to reality television and lifestyle programming, suggesting that not only do ‘real men cook’, as Moseley (in Brunsdon et al, 2001) has argued, but they can cry too. Thus in the discussion below we focus on Jeremy Paxman’s episode of WDYTYA? which opened the second series in January 2006. As an award-winning journalist and presenter of BBC2’s long running news and current affairs programme Newsnight, Jeremy Paxman has cultivated a ‘hard-nosed’ persona and interviewing style (most famously illustrated by an interview with Michael Howard in 1997, during which he asked the former home secretary the same question 12 times in pursuit of a non-evasive answer ). Whether relished with glee or as a marker of the ‘real man’ behind the tough television persona, the significance of his emotional outburst on WDYTYA? was not been lost on popular commentators and audiences alike, and offers us a point of analytical inquiry within the context of this paper.

Authenticity and emotionality: Debunking the TVP myth

Distinguishing between the authentic self and the televisual self is an inherently complex task, as aesthetic strategies of television are so often utilised to suggest the TVP’s ‘just-as-they-are-ness’. However, WDYTYA? does allow us to pinpoint particular moments where a clear televisual self is foregrounded, which is then juxtaposed with moments of authenticity focusing on a display of ‘emotionality’ – a raw emotional outburst that reduces the TVP to tears, silence, anger, joy or a mixture of these – signified as authentic. In terms of this distinction it is worth commenting on how the narrative structure of the programme foregrounds the televisual self. WDYTYA?’s narrative is organised so as to enable depictions of the televisual self that fit within the dominant representation of the particular TVP at early and recurring moments in the programme. Thus we are introduced to Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson as he goes go-kart racing around his beautiful Cotswold estate whilst Jeremy Paxman is significantly returned to the Newsnight studio at the end of his episode. These moments are combined with an insistence upon the authentic self of the TVP, which is revealed in the depiction of their domestic lives, often positioned at home, both at the beginning and end of their respective journeys. Thus, moments that foreground the televisual self are interspersed with those that give privilege access to the TVP’s ordinary life, featuring interactions with family and friends as well as access to places (such as the TVP’s house or parental home) and relationships that are suggestive of an authentic self separate and different from the usual onscreen appearances of the TVP. Indeed, whilst amateur genealogy itself is often posited as striving towards linking family origins with royalty and fame, both the programme-makers and TVPs of WDYTYA? seem obsessed with humble origins. Thus Paxman’s own Cambridge-educated, privileged, middle-class up-bringing is purposefully emphasised in the opening minutes (in the form of fly-fishing and country houses) so as to set up the contrast with later revelations of his ‘ordinary’ ancestors and their poverty-stricken circumstances.

The oscillation within the TVP’s performance, between the televisual self and the authentic self, is most often at its most complicated when the TVP encounters a face from their past or a helper in their quest. Here their skill as a performer in front of the camera is made evident in their privileged address to camera, whilst the helper’s voice is more often than not mediated through the personality. As a result, such moments also act as cues for the TVP to perform their televisual self. However, these moments also act as authenticating aesthetic strategies, allowing the TVP to appear ‘just-as-they-are’. However, the programme is unwilling to let this depiction stand in for the true authentic self that it is keen to uncover, most obviously in the Paxman episode, which prods and pokes to produce a moment of emotionality. These moments are still constructed, but the difference is that they are constructed by the techniques of the programme-makers rather than the performance of the TVP.

The episode charts Paxman’s journey from the river-bank, where he goes fly-fishing in his spare time, via his mother’s home and through various genealogical investigations in Glasgow, Bradford and East Anglia, to the Newsnight studio at the programmes close. It is at this point that producer Alex West, signalling the series’ intention to reveal another side to the pre-established Paxman persona, asks him whether he feels the programme will change the public perception of him. He retorts, with all the ire and hostility most commonly associated with his interviewing of politicians and public figures: ‘What a ridiculous question!’ More to the point he goes on, ‘I’ve no idea whether they will. And I don’t care if they do. I mean you are just who you are aren’t you?’ For all of Paxman’s venom here, his final sentence ends in a question that displays ambivalence about how revealing the programme has been about his true or ‘authentic’ self. It is significant that his rebuke is delivered within the confines of the Newsnight studio, the programme having returned Paxman to his normal television ‘home’. The return to familiar televisual surroundings from the personal spaces at the opening of the programme enables him to perform in his usual scathing manner, enacting his televisual self through a performance of hostility, contempt and ire. A performance which is in contrast to the many moments depicted over the course of the programme, which purport to de-layer the TVP and ‘reveal’ the authentic self.

Mark Lawson’s review in The Guardian (2006: 36) is illuminating:

how much of their personality a journalist should expose is a more complicated matter … The problem with the film was that it seemed predicated on proving that he was a different man from the one we see on the box: current affair thug blubs. But what is it we see on the screen? TV presentation is a kind of performance and all performance is an act … Who Do You Think You Are? tried to explode [this]

Charlotte Brunsdon writes that the emphasis of contemporary lifestyle programmes is on ‘what producers call "the reveal"’; a moment of revelation almost always coded as ‘emotional’ and ‘melodramatic’ through the use of the extreme close-up and the reaction shot (2001: 55). Such codes are utilised within WDYTYA? by the programme makers, who structure the ‘surprise’ moment of emotional revelation as a marker of the ‘real’ Paxman in order to both manipulate the subject and their audience. Sat alone in the sparse room of Bradford registry office, Paxman removes his glasses and responds with silence to the details of his great grandmother’s death certificate – a widowed charwoman who died at a young age of TB and exhaustion. The camera quickly and jerkily zooms into an extreme close-up of an obviously choked up Paxman, as if desperate to record this glimpse of ‘real’ emotion. The moment of revelation is sustained by Paxman’s repeating the findings of the coroner’s reports and a second display of emotionality. Here Paxman once again removes his glasses, as if revealing unseen layers of his ‘personality’, but then he modestly partially covers his face with his hand from what feels like the prying gaze of the camera. The intrusive and lingering close-up that accompanies Paxman’s ‘surprise breakdown’ reveals its own strategy of construction. At this point the programme makers’ attempt to foreground an ‘authentic self’ of Paxman – that away from the studio lights and cameras he too can cry. Although this authentic self might not be indicative of an extraordinary/ordinary duality concealed by the TVP system, as proposed by Ellis’ star phenomenology, such moments arguably rebut his reduction of their onscreen image as simply ordinary and authentic; instead they draw our attention to Lury’s assertion that the TVP is ‘always in some sense "acting"’. However, whilst this moment is revealing in terms of offering an insight into the distinction between TVP-as-image and TVP-as-real-person, we would also argue the aesthetic strategies of the programme-makers here can be understood as undermining the moment’s status as itself ‘authentic’: by manipulating this display of emotion into a spectacular reveal moment, Paxman’s break down is enlisted for the programme-makers’ own project which, as we discuss below, has important ramifications for how we consider the programme’s public service broadcasting status.

Emotionality and Revelation in public service programming

This is famously the programme that made telly toughie Jeremy Paxman cry
Daily Mirror TV Guide, 2006: 19.
It is a sight few people would have expected to see on television – Jeremy Paxman, that most ferocious of political interviewers, reduced to tears
Ciar Bryne, 2005: 5

The distinction between the authentic and televisual self is an important one for allowing us to understand how TVPs’ televisual selves are sites of complex meanings, pleasures and signification in the television text. However, in the context of WDYTYA? it is worth questioning what purpose this revelation serves, particularly in the context of the BBC’s public service remit. Arguably, the emotionalism, even sensationalism inherent in its presentation and marketing, might be read as responsible for the populist appeal of WDYTYA? What the series exhibits is how, rather than viewing these categories as a marker of the ‘dumbing down’ of television, the elicitation of emotion, at least within BBC discourses, becomes key to their value. As Lord Birt exclaimed in his 2005 ‘James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture’, ‘I never expected to be moved by Ian Hislop but I was when he explored his family tree on WDYTYA?’ The attention on the emotional revelations of the TVPs, particularly Jeremy Paxman’s story, offered a point of media focus and promotion as noted in the quotes opening this section. However, rather than, as Catherine Johnson argues, simply reading the interruption of the personal and the emotional, and the incorporation of celebrities as part of the ‘decline of factual programming and a concession to populism at the expense of the BBC’s public service remit’ (in Brunsdon et al, 2001: 41), generic blending can become a point of renewal and success. As John Willis’ speech at the 2005 Factual Forum remarked, WDYTYA? drew upon important documentary qualities of strong narrative and genuine insight but ‘illuminated [these] in ways that feel modern and relevant.’

The incorporation of both TVPs and ‘real people’, the positioning of the personality as a ‘real person’, viewed at home with their families, and the programmes’ reliance upon personal memory and emotional revelation links the format with a series of recognisable television genres outside of historical programming – the confessional talk show, the celebrity talk show and the makeover show. Framed within an investigative narrative structure the personality embarks upon a physical and emotional journey. Whilst narratives of transformation and improvement pervade across lifestyle television, WDYTYA? attempts to encourage a reading of the journey to self knowledge, both historical and emotional, as a means to self-improvement; charting how self-revelation leads to self-awareness. Arguably the employment of post-memory work acts therapeutically for some participants, as Bill Oddie states, ‘this isn’t curiosity, this journey – it’s self-help.’ In contrast Paxman, though spectacularly revealed as an emotional being, is more resistant to the prescribed reading: ‘What did I learn from the delving into my family background? I got a strong impression that the producer wanted me to say the experience had somehow changed my life. It didn’t’ (Radio Times 7-13 January 2006: 19).

However, generic blending is not an unqualified rebuttal of anti-populist arguments and can itself cause problematic renderings of otherwise ‘serious genres’. As Kathryn Flett’s review of the Paxman episode in The Observer suggested, such a display of emotion has a close counterpart in reality TV leading her to feel a sense of déjŕ-vu in ‘watching Paxo’s stiff upper lip crumbling under the weight of something that looked suspiciously like an emotion’ with the experience of Michael Barrymore’s onscreen breakdown in Celebrity Big Brother broadcast in the same week (2006: 2). That such a comparison is available begs the question of the appropriateness of this kind of ‘talk’ and self-revelation within the model of an affirmative cultural citizenship that WDYTYA? arguably promotes; that the melodramatic displays of emotion are examples of intrusion and exploitation which distract from the provision of a greater sense of social/historical awareness.

The emphasis on the personal and the melodramatic led series producer Alex West to bill WDYTYA? as a mix of ‘History Today and heat’ (Deans 2005). Such programming, as Maggie Brown argues, has ‘come to symbolise the kind of programme the newly public service focused BBC should be doing: serious-minded, but also accessible and popular’ (2004). The producers clearly reveal their strategy of using the personal to explore the social; ‘producer Alex West said the BBC had selected the 10 most interesting stories to present to viewers as a social history of Britain today with personal stories that cover industrialisation, immigration, emigration, the British empire and wars of the 19th and 20th centuries’ (Deans 2005). It is possible that as the format tires, the programme runs the risk of becoming centrally about the emotional revelations of various TVPs, and the elements of social history might lose their relevance. However, in so doing the programme reveals the complex nature of TVPs’ on-screen appearances and, in an increasingly celebrity-conscious culture, our desire to know more about their everyday lives. West’s reference to heat is instructive here for, as Su Holmes (2005) has shown, such celebrity-magazines privilege the capture of ‘authentic’, off-guard and un-ready moments rather than staged performances or poses for paparazzi. As WDYTYA? strives to get closer to the authentic self of the TVP it reinforces the constructed-ness of their televisual self; being just-as-they-are is no longer who they really are. However, the moments of ‘emotionality’, which are established as revelations of an authentic self are not necessarily ‘unready’ moments but instead have to be understood in relation to the work and promotion of the programme makers. One must be continually aware of how on-screen appearances are in various ways controlled and performed as the TVP is a complex site of meaning and interpretation, and discovering who they really are is perhaps a more un-attainable task than it first appears.



BBC Press Office. Who Do You Think You Are? Press Release. 24 September 2004.

Frances Bonner. Ordinary Television. London: Sage, 2003.

Maggie Brown. ‘Television Goes Back to its Roots,’ The Guardian, 13 December 2004: http://media.guardian.co.uk/mediaguardian/story/0,7558,1372234,00.html, accessed 25/10/05

Charlotte Brunsdon, Catherine Johnson, Rachel Moseley and Helen Wheatley. ‘Factual Entertainment on British Television: The Midlands Television Research Groups "8-9 project",’ in European Journal of Cultural Studies, 4 (1) (2001): 29-62

Ciar Bryne, The Independent, 8 December 2005: 5

Jason Deans ‘Oddie found sister through BBC genealogy show,’ The Guardian, 28 July 2004: http://media.guardian.co.uk/broadcast/story/0,7493,1270988,00.html, accessed 25/10/05

Richard Dyer. Stars. London: BFI Publishing, 1979.

John Ellis. Visible Fictions. London: Routledge, 1982.

Kathryn Flett. ‘Big Brother: a virus you can’t get over,’ The Observer (Review), 15 January 2006: 2

Su Holmes. ‘Off-guard, Unkempt, Unready'?: Deconstructing Contemporary Celebrity in heat Magazine,’ Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 19 (1) (2005): 21-38,

Deborah Jermyn. ‘"How Does She Wear It?" Shopping with SJP and Carrie Bradshaw in the Age of Television Stardom’. Critical Studies in Television (TV Shorts), April 2005: http://www.criticalstudiesintelevision.com/tvshorts/jermynd_sjp.shtml

Mark Lawson, ‘Daylight in Upon Magic: Jeremy Paxman cried on TV. But sometimes it’s better not to reveal all,’ The Guardian, 13 January 2006: 36

Karen Lury. ‘Television Performance: Being Acting and "Corpsing",’ New Formations, 26 (1995-96): 114-131

Rachel Moseley. ‘Makeover Takeover on British Television,’ Screen, 41(3) (Autumn 2000): 299 – 314.

Jeremy Paxman. ‘Jeremy Paxman’, Radio Times, 7-13 January 2006: 18-19

Wall-to-Wall. Who Do You Think You Are? forges new roots on BBC One.’ Press Release. 16 February 2006: http://www.walltowall.co.uk/press/release.asp?ReleaseID=348


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