Documentary evidence of a golden age

Jeremy Clarkson in Who Do You Think You Are?
Jeremy Clarkson in Who Do You Think You Are?
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Alex Graham is the man behind the hugely popular TV show Who Do You Think You Are? and chairman of Sheffield Doc/Fest. He talks to Chris Bond.

alex Graham believes we are living in a “golden age” of documentary film-making, and it’s hard to disagree.

The last decade has seen a string of brilliant documentaries, from Searching For Sugar Man (2012), which charts the attempts to trace folk musician Sixto Rodriguez, to the Oscar-winning Man On Wire, which chronicles Philippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire walk between the World Trade Centre buildings in New York, and Charles Ferguson’s brilliant critique of the financial crisis in Inside Job (2010).

There will no doubt be further gems unearthed during next month’s Sheffield Doc/Fest, now in its 20th year. This year’s five-day event, which runs from June 12 to 16, features 120 film screenings including the world premiere of The Big Melt, a celebration of a century of steel on film, and the UK premiere of Mike Lerner and Maxim Pozdorovkin’s Pussy Riot – A Punk Prayer, which tells the dramatic story of three members of the controversial feminist art collective, Pussy Riot.

Graham, the festival’s chairman, says the Doc/Fest has grown dramatically from its humble beginnings in the mid-90s. “When it started it was quite a small festival but in the last five or six years under Heather Croall’s direction it’s really grown and it’s now a firm fixture on the international calendar and one of the top three documentary festivals in the world.”

He believes the festival’s popularity has coincided with boom in documentary making. “It’s really taken off in the last five to 10 years and I believe we are genuinely living in a golden age of documentary films.” Graham says the its success is down to the passion of the organisers and the fact it has something for everyone. “It has the traditional film festival element in that it screens exciting new documentaries, but it’s also a place where buyers, film distributors and producers come to meet documentary makers and find the next big thing.”

The Doc/Fest attracts more than 2,600 people from the international documentary industry to Sheffield, a figure that keeps rising each year. Such is the festival’s kudos these days that it’s able to attract a string of guest speakers with Melvyn Bragg giving his take on the role of arts on TV, Michael Palin talking about his remarkable career to journalist Miranda Sawyer, and BBC2 controller Janice Hadlow in conversation with Sue Perkins.

“There’s a conference element, there’s debate, we’ve got big names like Michael Palin and Melvyn Bragg and we’ve got documentary masterclasses from people like Walter Murch, who worked with Francis Ford Coppola. It’s a really fun and friendly festival.”

As well as being involved with the Doc/Fest, Graham is a leading UK independent television producer and the man behind the BBC’s hugely popular TV series Who Do You Think You Are?, now in its 10th year. It’s been commissioned for an 11th series which will take it to a hundred episodes – not bad for something he thought would just be a one-off series.

Graham, who will be talking about the series at the festival, came up with the idea while reading an interview with Billy Connolly. “I’ve always been interested in the different ways of telling stories on TV,” he says, “and I was reading an interview with Billy Connolly who, like me, comes from Glasgow. He was talking about his family life and growing up in the city and working in the shipyards and although he’d become very famous I realised that his family history was no different from thousands of ordinary people in the UK.

“So I thought if we could get famous, first generation celebrities to trace their family history it would be something lots of ordinary people could identify with.”

The idea coincided with a surge of interest in genealogy. “With the growth of the internet, it’s become a very popular hobby. The problem is that while we think our own family history is interesting we aren’t interested in other people’s and with TV you need something that has more universal appeal.”

Which is where the idea of using celebrities came in. “We wanted to find about 10 famous Brits, each with their own story that covered a different period of British history, things like the Second World War, the Irish Potato famine, the Civil War and the Empire. A bit like our own version of Simon Schama’s A History of Britain.” Graham and his team were commissioned to make a series but had no idea just how popular the show would become. “We thought we might find the odd skeleton in someone’s cupboard but we didn’t realise just how much of an emotional journey it would be. I would say that in more than half the episodes the celebrity ends up crying at some point – it’s almost become a running joke,” he says.

“It’s extraordinary what this journey does to people. It unnerves them and I think they’re often surprised themselves how emotional they become. But what’s wonderful is the programmes reveal another side to the celebrities that we don’t normally see.”

He believes the show’s enduring popularity is down to the fact it appeals to different kinds of people. “In some ways it’s a history show, but if you’re interested in celebrities then there’s a bit of voyeurism. You get to see Stephen Fry having tea with his mum and dad, so you get to see these famous people in a different environment.

“It’s also partly a detective story, because the celebrities don’t know where they’re going beforehand. Some might have a vague idea when they meet the film crew, but they don’t know where they’re going or who they’re going to meet. And that’s why it’s so emotional, because the camera captures the moment when they find something out for the first time, it’s absolutely authentic.”

Since 2004, famous names such as Stephen Fry, J K Rowling, Graham Norton and Jeremy Clarkson have all appeared on the show.

“If you asked 10 people which was their favourite episode you would probably get 10 different answers,” says Graham.

The programme featuring Jeremy Paxman was one of those that stands out for him. “He didn’t really want to do it, he was very reluctant and it took us eight or nine months to persuade him. But people become interested and moved by their family’s story, as he was.”

Boris Johnson was another person whose journey made
 for compelling TV. “There were two main parts to his story. On one side was this really interesting mix of politics and journalism in Istanbul in the early 20th century. For the other part we traced his family back through European aristocracy and at the end of the film we revealed that he was descended from George II. It was a wonderful moment and Boris was a real joy to work with.”

When working on a series they approach someone to find out if they want to be involved and if they say “yes” a team of researchers start delving into their past.

But sometimes the stories they uncover aren’t strong enough to make a TV programme out of, as was the case with Michael Parkinson.

“I’ve come to believe that everyone has a story, but we have a finite amount of time to do the research and there are times when we have to say we haven’t been able to find a story that’s quite interesting enough.”

It’s not the only challenge the team face. “Part of the appeal of any TV show that follows a format is a sense of familiarity, people know what they’re going to get. But the downside is people know what to expect and after a while they get bored.”

However, Graham says there’s an element of mystery about 
Who Do You Think You Are? that keeps viewers interested. “People know how it works but they don’t know where the story will go, so it’s a bit like watching a drama. The stories can be funny, sad, or shocking and that’s why it’s still so popular.”

Which is why he’s delighted to be talking about the series at this year’s Doc/Fest. “These are my two big passions, so to be able to bring them both together is fantastic.”

• Who Do You Think You Are? Behind the Scenes, June 15, 12.30pm, the Crucible Theatre. Sheffield Doc/Fest runs from June 12-16. For more information about the festival visit