The best TV and radio for family historians

Don't miss new documentary Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley, plus your chance to catch up with series 12 to 17 of Who Do You Think You Are? and more great history-themed TV

Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley

Our top TV show for family historians

Blitz Spirit with Lucy Worsley
BBC iPlayer

Between 7 September 1940 and 11 May 1941, German planes dropped an estimated 32,000 tonnes of bombs on Britain’s towns, city centres and suburbs. These were the days when Hermann Göring ordered the Luftwaffe to pummel London, ports such as Cardiff, Glasgow and Plymouth, and industrial areas including Birmingham, Coventry and Manchester.

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During the eight months of the Blitz, 44,652 souls perished as destruction rained down from the sky in raid after raid, people dying beneath the rubble of their homes, or in tube stations or backyard bomb shelters.

How do you even begin to sum up eight months that have come to underpin the nation’s self-image? In this feature-length documentary presented by Lucy Worsley and made by the award-winning production team behind Suffragettes With Lucy Worsley, the solution is to see the era in great part through the stories of six real people, portrayed here by actors who read from first-hand accounts, including those preserved in the Mass Observation archives. These were men and women who served on the home front, when thousands stepped forward to take on roles such as air-raid wardens, stretcher-bearers and nurses with the Civil Defence force.

Their courage should not be doubted, but this is a documentary that looks beyond familiar phrases such as ‘blitz spirit’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’ (a phrase that didn’t connect with ordinary people at the time) to explore “why we remember what we do and what’s been left out”.

Other TV picks for family historians

Raiders of the Lost Past with Janina Ramirez
From Friday 19 February, 9pm
BBC Two (except Northern Ireland)

While we’re all stuck on the sofa due to lockdown, we can at least experience world travel second-hand with this globe-trotting new documentary series from Janina Ramirez. The presenter travels the world to retrace some of the most famous digs in archaeological history – from the mythical palace of the Minotaur in Crete to a 1000-year-old Viking ship in Norway.

Who Do You Think You Are?
BBC iPlayer

BBC iPlayer have launched the perfect treat to lift family history fans’ spirits in lockdown – series 12-17 of Who Do You Think You Are? are now available to watch for the next 11 months. Relive classic moments from the series such as Danny Dyer discovering his royal connections, Olivia Colman tracing her roots to India and Jack and Michael Whitehall’s banter as they took on a rogue’s gallery of ancestors.

Long Lost Family
From Monday 18 January, 9pm
ITV

Although the pandemic inevitably affected the production of series 10 of Long Lost Family, which features just five new episodes, the programme remains as powerful as ever. Indeed, viewers may find it even more poignant at a time when so many of us, even those who haven’t lost someone close, are physically separated from our nearest and dearest.

The moment in episode one, for example, where co-host Nicky Campbell meets Ruben, adopted 40 years previously against the wishes of his parents Phyllis and Kevin Haran, will linger long in the memory. Plus, of course, the show regularly offers clues that might allow someone researching their family history to overcome those frustrating brick walls.

Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig
Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty and Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown in The Dig
Larry Horricks/Netflix

The Dig
From Friday 29 January
Netflix

In 1939, as war clouds gathered over Europe, archaeological and historical research didn’t simply stop – and certainly not at Sutton Hoo, near Woodbridge in Suffolk. Here, in the months immediately before the Second World War broke out, archaeologist Basil Brown spent the late spring and summer excavating one of a number of Anglo-Saxon burial mounds at a site that has subsequently become world-famous.

Based on a 2007 novel written by John Preston and directed by Simon Stone from a script by Harlots co-creator Moira Buffini, new film The Dig takes viewers back to these heady days of discovery, albeit with quite a bit of dramatic licence.

Heading the cast, Carey Mulligan stars as Edith Pretty, the landowner who employed Brown, who is played by Ralph Fiennes. Lily James takes the role of archaeology student Peggy Preston who, surrounded by sexist and domineering men at the dig, forges friendships with Brown and Pretty. Familiar faces rounding out the impressive cast include Johnny Flynn, Ben Chaplin, Ken Stott and Monica Dolan.

Circling a Fox
BBC iPlayer

We all hope to uncover family stories with real drama, but sometimes they carry more of an emotional punch than we anticipated. That was the case for Scottish actor Matthew Zajac. Growing up in Inverness, he thought of his tailor father Mateusz not just as a respected figure in the community, but also as a war hero who had fought in the Polish army in the Second World War.

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However, after his father died Zajac travelled to Mateusz’s home town, now in Ukraine, and began to hear a much richer, more complex and sometimes unsettling story. His research formed the basis of an acclaimed one-man play The Tailor of Inverness, elements of which have now been reworked for Circling a Fox. Broadcast by BBC Scotland, the film mixes up elements of documentary, theatre and dramatic reconstruction.