Behind the scenes on the new series of Who Do You Think You Are?

Who Do You Think You Are? series producer Sarah Feltes speaks exclusively to Claire Vaughan about the first four episodes of series 17

Ruth Jones on Who Do You Think You Are?

Autumn’s here: the leaves are turning brown and we’ve all got that back-to-school feeling. The nights may be drawing in, but the long-awaited new series of Who Do You Think You Are? will begin airing from 12 October, and as ever the episodes promise to be full of intrigue, surprises and amazing revelations galore. So whose family history journeys can we escape into this year?

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The series begins with four episodes packed with classic genealogical mystery-cracking and family history thrills. Join the celebrities – Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker, writer and comedian David Walliams, Gavin & Stacey co-creator Ruth Jones and Silent Witness actor Liz Carr – as they dive into the archives.

This time there are some really unusual stories going back 200 years and more, and several storylines reflect the nation’s current predicament. Sarah Feltes, series producer of WDYTYA?, says, “There are a lot of moving stories in these four episodes. Some are quite resonant, covering public service, doing the right thing and the founding of the National Health Service, plus there’s a kind of ‘whodunit’.”

So were the episodes filmed in lockdown? Sarah explains, “We’ve been caught out by the pandemic, just like everyone else. Luckily we had just completed filming on four of the episodes when lockdown was announced, so we’ve been able to complete them.”

It’s been a challenging series to put together this year, but Sarah is excited about the stories they have unearthed: “For sheer fun, I love Liz Carr’s episode – it has a kind of ‘whodunit’ (or I suppose more of a ‘did he do it’) story in it, and I think that has a momentum of its own. Also, I think in David Walliams’ case there are qualities that he shares with a particular ancestor, which is very interesting – it’s an unusual story.”

What are the episodes about?

But one thing gave the makers of the programme goosebumps when they reviewed the first four episodes, given the country’s current experiences surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.

“There’s a theme that runs through the whole series, which is particularly strong in Jodie Whittaker’s episode as well as Ruth Jones’ – it’s one of public service, duty and sacrifice. There’s a segment in Jodie’s episode about an ancestor who was in the First World War that sends shivers up your spine because of what we are living with now.

“And then in Ruth Jones’ episode, her grandfather was involved in a tangential but significant way in what became the founding template for the National Health Service in the 1940s. We are all thinking about the NHS right now, so for a story like that to come along at this moment is quite something.”

There’s a theme that runs through the whole series of public service, duty and sacrifice

Can more episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? be filmed under social distancing restrictions?

Sarah emphasises that safety is the absolute priority in filming the remaining episodes of series 17. “We are busily reviewing all of the protocols that are being put in place to film safely, with social distancing, without compromising the way that we tell our stories. We are optimistic that we will be able to achieve that, but we obviously need to know that everybody is going to be safe. We film with all sorts of people, with a wide range of ages. There’s often only one expert on a particularly niche subject, and we need to take care of the individuals involved.”

So will the traditional meetings with experts be replaced by Zoom chats? “I think it is possible. I don’t know that we will want them to become the norm if we can avoid it, but we are all becoming very used to meeting in this way. It’s a language we recognise, so we may do a bit of it, but we will try to make everything as normal as possible.”

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In these uncertain times, though, two things are sure. The new series will give vicarious pleasure to those of us yearning for the archives that we can’t visit ourselves, and every episode will be as packed with genealogical gems as ever. So make yourself a cuppa, put your feet up and enjoy some wonderful storytelling, as Sarah and her talented team of researchers lift the lid on the fascinating family histories contained in more of our favourite celebrities’ trees.