It's the kind of twist the producers of Who Do You Think You Are? would sell their mothers for.
A British actor, whose performance in a film about a group of down, but not quite out, steelworkers took him to Hollywood, sets out to discover his ancestors. Cue various dead ends, red herrings, before finally the Eureka moment when it emerges his great-grandfather and the diaries of his fruitless search for work were key to the foundation of the welfare state.
Mark Addy, who found fame in The Full Monty, grew up in York and the city remains home for the father-of-three, who was most recently seen as Friar Tuck opposite Russell Crowe's Robin Hood. The family always knew the Addys in York went back generations, but details about their ancestors were scant. All that changed when they received a call from a TV company behind a documentary marking the centenary of Seebohm Rowntree's landmark research Poverty and Progress.
In 1910, the York philanthropist and third generation of the chocolate dynasty started an investigation into the lives of people trapped below the breadline in his home city. The result made uncomfortable reading for those at the heart of Government, who had been happy to dismiss the suffering of the unemployed as entirely of their own making.
Interviewing 12 ordinary families, who were asked to record the daily realities of life, Rowntree's final report published in 1910 showed poverty was not a personal choice, but a national disgrace and one which demanded solutions. A hundred years on, researchers set about tracking down the descendants of the original case studies, in the hope of shedding light on the rapid social changes which took Britain from the workhouse to the welfare state.
"Out of the dozen families, we felt sure it would be possible to trace at least one through the 20th-century to the present day," says Richard Bilton, presenter of the two-part documentary A Life Without Work. "But everywhere we drew a blank." The breakthrough eventually came when genealogy experts from York and District Family History Society suggested the report may have used pseudonyms to safeguard the privacy of the unfortunate families. The investigation took a different tack and a little more detective work led to the Addys' front door.
"The report mentioned one of the families, the Nevinsons, had a daughter who was a pupil at the Blind School," says Bilton. "Suddenly, we had something to go on. Looking back at the records, we found at the time there was just one girl from York attending the school. She was the right age and everything suddenly dropped into place. Her name was Ivy Addy."
It was Ivy's 50-year-old father, John, whose life story was among the most moving in Rowntree's research. He was referred to as a "silent man, never known to have refused work", and his wife had given birth to 22 children, but only five had survived infancy.
By the summer of 1910, John hadn't worked regularly for years, but despite suffering sciatica he wandered the city most days in search of gainful employment, surviving on a meagre diet of bread, margarine and occasionally, when the house-keeping would allow, kippers.
"When Seebohm Rowntree compiled his report, the country was just
emerging from recession and many families were on the brink of destitution," says Richard Taylor, archives manager for City of York Council. "There had been reports before about London's poor, but everyone thought it was a problem peculiar to the capital. York had the chocolate factories, it had the railways, but you didn't have to dig far behind the apparent wealth and success to find the underbelly of the city.
"It was groundbreaking not least because he actually talked to the working classes. He asked them to keep diaries, showed them some respect and didn't fall into the trap of romanticising their plight as others had done.
"Rowntree wanted to show that unemployment didn't automatically mean people were feckless, idle or spent their money on the wrong things. Yes, drink was a problem, but largely because of the harsh reality of some people's lives. This is an age where many had a hand-to-mouth existence, waking up not knowing whether that evening they would actually have enough to eat to keep them going the next day."
The report pricked the conscience of Britain's ruling elite and with the introduction of labour exchanges, improved education and social benefits, later generations of the Addys fared much better. Having watched his father earn a decent if hard living in the chocolate factories, John's grandson Ian became a glazier at York Minister and watched his own son graduate from Rada and into the film industry.
"It was an unsettling experience," says Mark, who retraced his family's footsteps back to the Hungate slums as part of the documentary. "Nothing had been known about that side of the family until now. At the time Britain had an empire which spanned the world, but there were still families living in desperate poverty."
Those behind A Life Without Work admit they struck gold with the Addys, but the documentary is more than just one family's rags-to -riches story. Due to be broadcast after details of this week's Comprehensive Spending Review have been laid bare, the programme both draws parallels between then and now and highlights just how far the country has come in the treatment of its most vulnerable.
The second installment again takes inspiration from the original diaries, comparing the lives of Rowntree's single mothers and young jobless men to their 21st-century counterparts.
"Much has changed for the better, but we shouldn't pretend that
everything is rosy in York, it's still to some extent an historic city floating on a sea of council estates," says Taylor.
"The Addys moved from poverty to stardom in three easy steps and while theirs is a story of extremes, it's also a story about opportunity, education and self-improvement.
"In just three generations their fortunes were transformed, but it does make you wonder how long would it take for the situation to be reversed and for all the good work of welfare reformers to be undone."
n A Life Without Work, October 22, BBC2, 9pm.
A FAMILY DOWN ON THEIR LUCK
n Extract from Seebohm Rowntree's Poverty and Progress 1910.
The Nevinsons live in a four-roomed house in a very small street on the outskirts of the city. Mrs Nevinson feels the heat being very tall and very stout, weighing 14st; they have a delicate girl of 20 who has worked in various factories, but always left through ill-health and is to be married in a few weeks. The lad is 12, under-sized for his age
and the youngest girl is at the Blind School.They are in arrears of rent and have bill at the corner shop. Nothing is against the
Nevinsons, say the neighbours, but bad luck.
n Mr Nevinson's Diary
July 10: Up at 4am and went round the town to see if I could find anything that had been lost. Couldn't see anything, so came home at 7am. Had breakfast consisting of jam and bread. Went to bed until 1pm.
July 15: Got up at 5am, went round the town to several places hoping to find work, but was unsuccessful. Back home at 10am, had some cold tea and bread. Went out until 3pm, carried a bag for a gentleman, got sixpence for the job.
July 21: Went out at 6am, walked to Naburn to meet barges, walked back, home at 2pm. Dinner – bread and tea, tired so went to bed, got up at 7pm, had tea and bread.
July 26: Got up at 6am, heard of a job grave-digging at cemetery, went to see it at 8am, but was disappointed.
n Seebohm Rowntree also asked the Nevinsons to record what they ate. It made grim reading.
Breakfast: Tea, bread and margarine
Dinner: Tea, bread and margarine
Supper: Tea, bread.
Breakfast: Tea, bread and jam
Dinner: Tea, three stale buns
Supper: Tea, bread.
Breakfast: Tea, kippers, bread
Dinner: Three pennyworth of meat pieces boiled with potatoes
Tea: Bread and margarine, onions.