As he himself points out, former theatrical agent Michael Whitehall is an older father who may not be around much longer, a point he emphasises by gesturing like a blade across his own neck.
“What, executed?” says his comedian son, Jack.
Welcome to the world of the first father-and-son team to trace their family history for Who Do You Think You Are?
As the pair set out to trace their family history, Michael’s well-to-do grandfather Richard Earnest Baxter Whitehall, or REB, emerges as a key figure. It was his wealth that enabled Michael’s parents to send him to public school, but how did REB come by his money?
A visit to Michael’s cousin, Jennefer, reveals that REB’s father, Richard Whitehall, was a commercial traveller. The family story is that Richard died in a pony-and-trap accident and his wife Caroline died of grief shortly afterwards. Then a wealthy businessman, Charlie Worsey, adopted the orphaned REB.
The truth is rather more complex – and darker. The young REB – a boarder at Commercial Travellers’ School in London, where Charles Dickens was an honorary chair – didn’t lose his father to an accident. Both his parents likely died of syphilis, his mother in an asylum because of the effects of the disease.
As for Worsey, he was Caroline’s brother, a wool merchant who in 1938 left the equivalent of £10m. REB, it seems, wasn’t adopted young, but worked as a commercial traveller himself before inheriting his wealth later in life from a cousin 10 years his senior.
Next, Jack and Michael turn their attention to lawyer Thomas Jones Phillips, respectively their 3x and 4x great grandfather via REB’s wife, Edith.
It’s research that lays bare family political differences as the duo learn Thomas was, in Jack’s words, “a massive Tory”. He was an important figure in the politics of Monmouthshire around the time of the Great Reform Act.
Passed in 1832, this extended the franchise to a new class of middle-class voters. Thomas tried to keep those he thought might vote for the Whigs off the electoral register through technicalities.
Michael thinks he was doing a good job. Jack: “I’d rather he had syphilis.”
At the other end of the political spectrum in industrial South Wales was John Frost, a Chartist who thought the franchise should be extended further still.
Gradually, Jack and Michael tease out the role of Thomas in the aftermath of the so-called Newport Rising (1839), when 5,000 Chartists marched on the Westgate Hotel, where a group of fellow Chartists were held prisoner. Special constables and soldiers guarding the building opened fire, killing 22, the biggest loss of civilian life inflicted by the army on British soil in the 19th century. Warrants were issued for those who took part in the rising, including Frost, who was tracked down by Thomas.
Frost and other Chartists were found guilty of high treason, and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, a sentence later commuted to transportation for life – to the relief of a shocked Michael and Jack. As for Thomas, he’s commemorated at a local church, in a plaque located above the toilet.
The discoveries Jack and Michael have made have been so difficult that, jokes Jack, he’s going to “sever ties” with his father: “All your ancestors were wrong ’uns. I’m sure Mummy has really nice ancestors.”