Jodie Whittaker talks Who Do You Think You Are?

In the first of a new series of the genealogy programme, Jodie Whittaker begins with her father’s side of the family tree, looking into a romantic story she’s been told about how her beloved paternal grandmother Greta came to be given the middle name of Verdun – also the name of a First World War battle.

The truth Jodie uncovers about Greta’s eldest half-brother’s forgotten sacrifice is even more poignant than the family myth.

On her mum’s side, Jodie gets to the bottom of how her great-great-grandfather worked his way up from being a child labourer in a Yorkshire coal mine to a mine owner – and how, controversially, his sons kept the family’s mines open during the biggest strikes of the 1920s.


How did you find the whole experience of filming Who Do You Think You Are?

You can’t believe how much from one tiny little piece of information that you hand over to some researchers and historians, what they can take and give you and your family for the rest of our time, is extraordinary. It’s such a privilege to be on the show and have that because without the show we wouldn’t have known any of it.

Is it important to learn as much about family history?

The knowledge of my family history is really limited because on both sides my mum and dad didn’t really know loads about the next generation. For a lot of people, if you go back 300, 400 years, the stories have disappeared, but for us, our immediate family history has got slightly twisted or tweaked or completely changed.

I have a very strong identity with my mum, my dad and my brother, as a family unit, but outside of that, it’s pretty much my grandparents and it stops there.

Were you nervous about what you might uncover, entering on this process?

I was most nervous that it would be, and this is so narcissistic, but I was nervous that it was going to be properly beige. I thought, there’s got to be some drama somewhere! I was really nervous that it was going to be like “Well, that’s boring, isn’t it?”. That was what I was most nervous about, but it was the opposite of that.

In the programme, you follow a story from your mum’s side of the family?

My mum’s side of it was taken from a family photograph that I had that’s been pieced together through bits of information my mum and I knew, and we realised that it was a jigsaw piece, to a very big puzzle

And actually, certain bits of that story we hadn’t got exactly right, and certain bits of it were a huge surprise – because that’s also in our immediate family history. None of my stories stretches further back than the 1800s, it’s all at the end of the 1800s, turn of the 1900s, that we meet the Aucklands, and Bedfords (which is the Whittaker-Bedfords).

That story starts in the early 1900s, so everything is recent history.

And your paternal grandmother’s story is also explored in the show – that of your Grandma and her brother Walter – tell us a little about that?

So we follow my grandma Greta, who’s my dad’s mum, and she is the youngest of 9, and has been named after her eldest brother.

Her middle name is named after him in a way, and to discover who he was and what journey he went on – and being so close in history to mine. I mean, literally my dad’s uncle, and we had no idea the journey he went on and the hurdles he faced. The actual, literal battles he was in. That side of it was an emotional rollercoaster because it was so close. It wasn’t like four generations ago, he was my dad’s uncle, and now because I’m 38, he’s like a young boy to me.

He was a young lad, with so much life and I think these stories of WW1 were all historical stories to me, or films, but nothing that was within the grasp of my own family history.

You say your grandma was named after her eldest brother but the story behind the name turns out to be a little different to what you’d been told?

Yes, I have told that story so many times, about where my grandma’s name came from – the fact that it required probable, minimal research on our part, and no one did it! The number of people who must have thought ‘She is either a liar or not very bright’.

What did you take away from filming?

It made me feel that history can be your present, as long as you keep it present and when you pass on these stories, you keep people alive. I now know about Walter [Grandma Greta’s brother] so he can’t die again, that can’t happen.

I suppose it’s just about making sure I remember it correctly, and not doing my version of it and then it gets tweaked again.

Who Do You Think You Are? Jodie Whittaker, tonight at 9pm on BBC One

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