13 January 2008

Australia: Ancestors down under

The wildly successful BBC series Who Do You Think You Are? is spawning international copycats. There's a Canadian version which explores their celebrities' pasts, and now there's an Australian version.

We get the BBC re-runs in Israel, and it's only by accident that I find it scheduled. Series 3 is now being shown on Yes cable on channel 29. It is a show that grabs genealogists and non-genealogists alike. My husband is about as non-genealogist as is possible, but he watches with interest.

I love the ins and outs of each person's story, especially if they're flying off to other countries to track an ancestor. Of course, I marvel how the celebrity always finds a parking space right in front of whatever archive he or she is visiting and how there are never any lines of people waiting to pick up copies or ask for assistance.

Now the popular show also has an Australian version on SBS.

Genealogy has always seemed like an occupation for retirees with too much time on their hands and a looming sense of their mortality. Who can be bothered? It stands to reason that for most of us, most of our ancestors didn't do much at all. They were teachers and doctors and labourers and housemaids who met, married, bred, and died in an unremarkable fashion. Like that hypnosis therapy where you revisit past lives, few of us were ever going to be Cleopatra or Napoleon.

Yet the BBC series Who Do You Think You Are?, where British celebs traced their family trees, was a huge, huge hit in Britain and much-watched here when it screened on SBS recently. And now SBS has produced its own version, tracing the lineage of six well-known Australians: Jack Thompson, Kate Ceberano, Geoffrey Robertson, Cathy Freeman, Dennis Cometti and Ita Buttrose.

The shows, in whatever national version is being broadcast, provide more than an individual's family history. The series takes a look at family history within social history which impacts where and why families moved to different places and how larger events impacted their lives.

Australia, to me, is always fascinating. I've read about the Jewish First Fleeters, which is a fascinating part of the nation's history. I don't know if any of the people set to be interviewed on this series have roots in this group or later Jewish arrivals, but if you'd like to read more, see here and here.

As the series progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that there are an awful lot of people out there - both the subjects of each episode, and the legion of researchers, who are engaged in a prolonged, relentless search for identity and belonging. And that, perhaps, lies at the heart of both the success of these programs and the widespread interest in genealogy.

They tap into one of the most profound metaphysical questions human beings ask of themselves. As Thompson says at the beginning of his journey: "I am, in some way, a product of my ancestry - and I have no idea what that ancestry is."

Read the complete story here.

UPDATE: Here's the official segment information on Ita Buttrose's Jewish ancestry. Click here

Media personality and publisher Ita Buttrose discovers determination and drive may be hereditary as she puts her journalistic skills to the test to trace her global family. She knows of a relation named William Butters who sailed from Scotland to Adelaide but not how the family name changed from Butters to Buttrose.

Following her maternal side, Ita discovers she has a strong Jewish connection, including a chief rabbi, in her family. She traces her Jewish ancestors to the once impoverished Jewish ghetto where they had lived in New York and Hungary and learns that poverty and hardship drove them to seek a better life in Australia.

Along the way she finds the Buttrose will to ‘fight the system’is flowing through her veins.


  1. Anonymous12:06 PM

    With all of the junky "reality" shows they have on television these days, especially with the current writers' strike, wouldn't it be wondeful if this show came to the US?

  2. I definitely agree.
    I have heard hints that this may be under consideration in the US, but nothing recently. I wonder if other readers have heard anything?
    How about combining "Survivor" or "Lost" with this? The first person to find their ancestors wins? Teams of people with roots in the same place working together to unearth data? Players could be dropped off in ancestral locations and told to find information (with few language skills) or possibly shipped to a desert island with their only tool a computer and, of course, subscriptions to all online databases?

  3. See the following URL:


  4. Thank you for the pointer to the excellent Sydney Morning Herald story, which details more about the Australian series and its celebrities.