Last night’s TV: Who Do You Think You Are?
JK Rowling’s story telling gift allowed for a fascinating look at her ancestary says Diarmuid Doyle
As we all know, Harry Potter has a complicated ancestry. His father James, murdered with Harry’s mother Lily by Lord Voldemort, is a direct descendant of Ignotus Peverell, one of the original owners of Deathly Hallows. To say Harry’s past sometimes came back to haunt him would be literally true.
Of the lineage of Harry’s creator JK Rowling, not so much is known. Or, at least, not much was known until last night’s Who Do You Think You Are? on BBC1.
Rowling had grown up with the knowledge that her French great-grandfather Louis Volant had won the Legion d’Honneur for wartime bravery. Now she wanted to put some flesh on the story. Who was Louis? Where was he from? What he do to earn his award?
Rowling is a rare enough presence on tv; certainly I don’t remember her giving this much of herself away before. She has spoken about her mother, who died just as Rowling’s writing career was starting off, and who was as fascinated as everybody else by Louis and his exploits.
Rowling, or Jo as she introduced herself to everyone she met, appears to have agreed to do this programme as a kind of tribute to her mother, to fill in the gaps in the family history on her behalf.
Her storytelling gift allowed her to made sense of that history as it emerged from dusty ledgers and documents in Britain and France, and helped make for a very watchable programme. Time after time, she digested new information and immediately recast it as though it was part of a story she was writing.
She’s a bit of a drama queen. She read an account of a First World War battle in which Louis had taken part as though she was doing a public performance of one of the more exciting chapters from a Potter novel.
When she found out that Louis had killed some Germans, she reacted as though he had just shot them in front of her.
Which in a way he had. When your family history comes at you like this, all of a sudden and with no mediation, it feels contemporary, as though the previous hundred years had disappeared before your eyes.
For that reason, genealogy can make for great television, as acts of bravery and cowardice, and stories of great happiness and great sadness, are revived and explained.
It turned out that Louis had never won the Legion d’Honneur, and that the medal that had been passed down through the generations actually signified union membership. But he was unquestionably a war hero, being one of a brave battalion who stopped the German march into Paris.
Before being called up to the French army, Louis had lived in England with his wife and children. Afterwards, by now separated, he returned to London, and worked in the Savoy Hotel. He retired to France, where he died in 1939 and effectively disappeared from the family history.
Rowling continued to work backwards and went looking for Louis’ mother Salome, her great-great grandmother, and found her, first as a domestic servant and single mother in Paris, and later in her home place on the French-German border.
Her surname was Schuch, and in the final scenes last night, we saw Rowling, standing in the graveyard where so many of her Schuch relatives are buried, talking to a distant cousin she never knew she had.
Another attraction of genealogy is that when a celebrity starts to research her family history, she stops being a celebrity and becomes just another small player in a story stretching back hundreds and thousands of years.
When Rowling’s cousin met her, he asked her if she was the person who wrote the Harry Potter books. “They’re good”, he said, giving her the thumbs up.
It was a laugh out loud moment. Rowling has sold 450m books, made her fortune and inscribed her name in literary history. But it was if she needed to come to this small French graveyard and receive the approval of a distant relative for it all to mean something and make sense.
It was as though her past had come back to haunt her, to acknowledge her success on behalf of all family members, including her mother.
Surprisingly, that scene in the graveyard wasn’t the most memorable on television last night. That honour fell to Stars Go Racing o RTE1, which has almost reached the end of an engaging little run.
The latest episode featured a battle between three contestants – Jean Byrne from Met Eireann, singer Linda Martin and tv presenter Ella McSweeney - to make it to next week’s final.
Byrne had plans for her horse, The Colour Of Love. “I’m just going to do a little Reiki on The Colour Of Love”, she said, preparing her hands for the task ahead. “Basically, it’s a sort of healing energy. It does people or animals good, even if they’re not ill, so to speak”.
She explained how she sucks “the Reiki energy in through my chakra and it will travel wherever it needs to go”.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Jean Byrne do Reiki on a horse, which qualified for the final, by the way.
As JK Rowling will tell you, there’s something to be said for this voodoo stuff.