Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Find My Past - spoiler free review

I've just had the privilege to watch the very first episode of the new Find My Past TV series, which will be broadcast on the Yesterday channel on Thursday at 9pm. The following is a spoiler free review, but for a quick summary, two words - thumbs up!

The first episode follows 46 year old David, 31 year old Lara and 30 year old Lulu as they trace their connections to Operation Dynamo and the events of the Dunkirk evacuation. Their stories are connected - two particularly so - and they have no knowledge of those connections, but work their way through their own individual tales before a final meeting ties their stories together.

The first thing about the programme to note is that this is not just a series sponsored by, but actually a series quite heavily branded as an extension of that platform. Due to the historic nature of the way that the series has been funded - Britain's first major product placement series essentially - there are of course the requisite numbers of sequences involving the website, though ironically for an event that took place in the Second World War, those sequences are by necessity short. Nick Barratt is the series genie who pops up to get the 'tree business' out of the way fairly quickly. I would have to say, in this episode, it works to an extent with one of the characters, although perhaps a bit tokenistic with the others, but thankfully it is all out of the way quite quickly. I say thankfully, because this series' strength isn't going to be about what the FindmyPast website can necessarily do for you - though you will definitely want to use it! - but about something far, far more fundamental which it nails brilliantly.

Many will want to compare the series with Who Do You Think You Are, but this is a very different creature entirely. There's no John Hurt wanting to be Irish, no Jeremy Clarkson looking for the missing millions, and certainly no Carol Vorderman walking into a shop and bumping into someone who just happens to have the answers! The main character is in some ways not the three individuals at all in fact - it is the story itself which rolls along chronologically, but which the three characters' journeys appropriately reveal at the right points. So why have them in at all? The reason is simple - this series is about connection. If you want to tell a tale of Dunkirk with just the facts and some nice footage, hire Simon Schama. But if you believe that the truth of a major story is always going to be more powerfully told from other people's smaller stories explored from the bottom up - essentially the revolution in history teaching that the wave of interest in family history has slowly been unleashing over the last few years - watch Find My Past.

The programme itself is quite punchy and does go at a rate. Being on a commercial channel it is in four parts, each topped and tailed with reprises and previews, but you're soon back into the swing of things after the ads. Chris Hollins is a competent presenter who works well, not meeting the three people featured until the end and competently narrating the relevant history throughout.

My overall feeling is that Who Do You Think You Are often asks the question, but rarely answers it - it tells you often about a celebrity you may have never heard of, and along the way occasionally reveals some interesting historical developments - but Find My Past will enthuse you to try to make that connection, particularly with the selection of topics that in most cases will have a broad appeal.

Looking forward to the second episode now on the Titanic - my great great grandfather helped to build it! :)

Where to find Yesterday: Sky channel 537, Virgin TV channel 203 and Freeview channel 12.


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