Who Do You Think You Are? review: a lesson in how not to repeat the mistakes of our parents

A young Anna Maxwell Martin - BBC
A young Anna Maxwell Martin - BBC

I’ve grumbled a bit about Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One) because some of the episodes are too pat for my liking. The contributors will say: “Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if my ancestors worked as a circus clown/hailed from Ulan Bator,” and just like magic, that exact thing turns up in their family history.

This week’s episode, though, was an example of how this show can get it right. Anna Maxwell Martin proved to be lovely company. The introduction set her up in Motherland mode – “I spend my life running around picking up children, dropping off children, cooking, shopping…” she said. But in real life she is less fraught.

There were no striking coincidences or cor blimey moments in Maxwell Martin’s story. Instead, it was a thoughtful exploration of how children do not have to repeat the mistakes of their parents; and how it is possible to forge a happy life despite being brought up in miserable circumstances.

The actress was curious about her paternal grandfather, Maxwell (born plain Anna Martin, she uses his name as her stage name). She discovered that he was placed in an orphanage aged five when his mother died. Four of his sisters were sent there too but boys and girls were separated, meaning that the girls had each other but Maxwell couldn’t turn to them for comfort.

Why were they sent to the orphanage? A letter from the time recommended the siblings be taken into care to “keep them from the devil” because their father was a drunk. Maxwell Martin set out to discover if that was true; it was, and there was a vivid account of Maxwell’s father being tried in court for wife beating.

Yet despite such a traumatic childhood, Maxwell went on to become a wonderful father. Maxwell Martin said she used to regret taking his name because people mistook her for being posh and double-barrelled. “Now I’m so proud to be associated with my granddad, who I remember being just a lovely, positive, vivacious, smiley person – he made a really good stab at life,” she said. “His children felt loved and looked after and safe, and I find that very moving.”