When he was a child, Julian Clary drew up a simple family tree. However, as the comedian and TV presenter reflects when he appears on Who Do You Think You Are?, he knows little about the life stories that lie behind the names he scribbled on a piece of card.

There are at least a few old photographs to help in Julian’s research, such as a snap of his paternal grandfather, Jack. “He’s in full airforce drag, with his hat at a jaunty angle, but he might at least have smiled a bit,” says Julian. What would Jack have made of his grandson? He would, decides Julian, have been “horrified, probably”.

At the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Julian learns more about Jack’s career in the Royal Flying Corps, the precursor to the RAF. In the First World War, Jack was Chief Mechanic of 48th Squadron, responsible for keeping a dozen Bristol fighters in the air. Stationed just behind the lines, he worked long hours and lived under constant threat of attack, such as the August 1918 raid that all but wiped the squadron out.

Julian’s father, Peter, has few memories of Jack. “All of my life, he seemed to be away,” he says. In part, this was because Jack suffered with psychiatric problems, which followed a work injury in which he nearly lost his hand. Between August 1936 and April 1938, Jack was a voluntary patient at Napsbury Hospital in Hertfordshire.

If Jack’s life was tough, that of his father, Julian’s great grandfather, was even harder. Herman Tiedemann, “Herman The German” as Julian calls him, came to the UK as a child in the 1870s. In a photograph, he looks “bewildered” and “frail”. The 1901 census records find Herman living with his life, Louisa, “a big-boned girl with a big jaw and a rather severe side-parting”, in a poor address in Islington.

From his great aunt, Ivy, Julian learns that, unlike most German immigrants who were interned in the First World War, Herman remained free because he was ill with tuberculosis. He died in 1917, leaving Louisa with a desperate struggle to raise the couple’s children. Julian also finds evidence of a family schism, perhaps because Louisa was heavily pregnant when she married Herman. “It’s a love story of sorts,” Julian reflects, “but with a sad ending.”

Julian also wants to find out more about his maternal great grandmother, Theresa. In contrast to Louisa, Theresa was “particular”, a bit posh. A photo-portrait shows a woman who is “cool-looking”, even “arrogant”. Julian’s mother, Brenda, a bastion of the bowls club (“a sort of youth club for the mature”), remembers her as someone who knew about manners, the right way to do things.

Records from the late 19th century offer clues as to why this might have been. The family home was on Circus Street in Marylebone. While it was a modest address by the standards of an upmarket area, Theresa would have been able to stroll among more affluent neighbours in nearby Hyde Park.

Theresa’s wedding certificate – she was married on Boxing Day in 1881 – confirms a family legend: her occupation is listed as “artist”. There’s also a less welcome shock in the archives. As Julian set out on his research, his mother joked that she didn’t want to find any foreigners in her family tree. Theresa, it turns out, was born in Trier, Germany. Her father, Peter Walter, left the Prussian city during an economic downturn. Brenda initially looks shocked at this revelation, before deciding she ought to visit Trier for herself.

Looking back at what he’s discovered, Julian sees elements of himself in the characters of the people whose lives he’s traced. Although Jack, Herman, Louisa and Theresa are all long dead, Julian says he’ll carry the emotions their stories have stirred for the rest of his days.

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