For the TV presenter and wildlife expert, tracing his family tree means an often difficult journey into a history of depression and tragedy
Bill Oddie loves to be with his family, never happier than when he spends time with his three children and three grandchildren. Yet the comedian and wildlife TV presenter, an only child, has long wished he had more relatives. “I’ve always whinged a bit that I don’t have much of a family,” he says at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are?
He also has other reasons for wanting to trace his family. A few years ago, Bill was diagnosed with clinical depression. Learning more about the condition, he discovered he had a 'classic background' for the condition because his absent mother didn’t bring him up. Instead, his distant father, Harry, and paternal grandmother, Emily, raised him.
“This isn’t curiosity, this journey, it’s self-help,” Bill says as he visits the family home in Quinton, a suburb of Birmingham, for the first time in four decades.
It’s not a house that holds too many happy memories. Emily turned the home into a scruffy “old lady’s house”. His only memories of his mother, Lillian, from the period are “funny, isolated pictures”, such as the embarrassment of stumbling in on her taking a bath. A former neighbour, Trevor, helps Bill recall a day when Lillian was taken from the family home.
Lillian suffered from mental illness. During the 1950s, she was one of the 150,000 residents in Britain’s mental institutions, a figure 10 times higher than today. Bill was told she was schizophrenic but when he meets two of the nurses who looked after her, they say she was manic-depressive. They also remember Lillian receiving electroconvulsive therapy.
But what caused Lillian’s illness? On the south coast, Bill meets his aunt, Margery, for tea. She tells him that Lillian lost two children, one to a late miscarriage and the second aged just five days old. Worse, Lillian’s daughter, she explains, was upstairs crying but Emily told Lillian to ignore the child. When Lillian did go upstairs, the baby had choked.
In Rochdale, where the Oddies lived at this time, Bill sees the death certificate, which says the child died because of “inanition”, meaning she was poorly nourished. Likely Lillian could have done nothing to save the child, but she might never have known this.
It’s in Rochdale too that Bill learns more about cotton mill worker Emily from another aunt, Marjorie. The picture emerges of an undemonstrative, difficult woman who was struck by tragedy.
In 1927, her husband, Wilkinson, died under anesthetic during an operation to remove a cancerous growth in his throat, possibly an industrial illness caused by working as an “overlooker for cotton blanket weavers”.
But there’s happier news too. A piece in the local paper brings forward amateur genealogist Neil Oddie, who shares a great-great grandfather with Bill. Having complained about having no family, the presenter is given a family tree and learns of 30 living relatives he’s never met.
A branch of the family has lived in the same village on the borders of Lancashire and Yorkshire for generations. Naturally, Bill makes a pilgrimage to “Oddie country” where, before the industrial revolution, his family had been handloom weavers. He also meets Basil Oddie, descended from a branch of the family who were dairy farmers that supplied the fast-growing towns of the northwest.
Returning home, it’s clear Bill’s been on a difficult journey but also one that’s a “real lifesaver”. Alongside a newfound respect for the way Harry encouraged him to make the most of educational opportunities, Bill has begun to come to terms with his mother’s absence. “She was immensely unlucky in things that happened to her,” he concludes, adding only that he wishes he could have done more to help.