Thursday 16 July 2009

'Who Do You Think You Are' - Davina McCall

The first episode of the new series of 'Who Do You Think You Are' aired on BBC1 last night and it more than justified it's prime time slot - according to figures I read today it attracted 6.4 million viewers.

I really enjoyed this one, and yes, you won't believe it, I have even found a connection to Lindsay Anderson in there (me, obsessed with my work, never!). Anyway before I reveal the connection here's a brief synopsis of the show for anyone who didn't see it (it's available on the iPlayer)

Davina McCall was brought up largely by her grandmother, as her mother was an alcoholic and in Davina's own words 'still a child herself'. She grew up hearing stories that she was descended from George IV, with a distant relative being his illegitimate son. It turned out that this wasn't the case, but her ancestor had been the King's master stonemason and had left an impressive legacy of work, along with a very divisive will which caused a number of family tragedies. I got the impression that because of her mother's unstable personality she was expecting to find more of the same when she delved into her mother's French background. However nothing could be further from the truth. She found out that her great-grandfather was Celestin Hennion, head of the French police in the early 1900's. He is still revered and honoured in France, both for his work in modernising the police force, and for his support for Captain Alfred Dreyfus. During the Dreyfus Affair, when the military captain was accused of spying and unjustly convicted (due to rampant anti-semitism in France at this time) Hennion stood up for him and according to an historian Davina McCall met with in France, the testimony of her great-grandfather was central to his defence, although he was still found guilty. Eventually, due to worldwide public condemnation, aided by a public letter of protest sent by Emile Zola to a French newspaper, Dreyfus was pardoned.

So, now to the Lindsay Anderson connection - Lindsay Anderson starred in Prisoner of Honor. This film about the Dreyfus affair was directed by Ken Russell in 1991 for HBO and starred Richard Dreyfuss and Oliver Reed. Lindsay Anderson played the French Minister of War. So far in my cataloguing I've come across a number of mentions of the film by Anderson. In a letter to an actor friend he says "I've no doubt it does a director a lot of good to find out what it's like in front of the camera." Writing to his friend Gavin Lambert he talks about having problems remembering all the lines, because he didn't feel there were enough rehearsals. He goes on the talk about Ken Russell, the director, saying "I do respect him for the way he's kept going and always, it seems, on his own terms" - something that was of the utmost importance to Anderson himself.

Going back to Who Do You Think You Are it was interesting to hear that the case, which was huge news in France at the time, was one of the very early instances of documentary film in France. Looking into this further I found an interesting website which documents all the films made about the Dreyfus Affair. It mentions four minutes of footage that was filmed at the trial in 1899 which could be the footage referred to in Who Do You Think You Are. This original footage was then used by the film maker Georges Méliès for an eleven minute film where he interspersed the original footage with reconstructed scenes. I watched this film on YouTube and I couldn't really tell which bits were the original footage, although sometimes it was obvious which bits weren't, if you know what I mean. I read that Méliès was often inspired by photographs and there is one scene in the film, where Dreyfus is arriving back from the penal colony that looks just like a photograph which was shown on the BBC programme. It's amazing how many directions one short programme can lead you in! I now want to watch more of the documentaries and films which have been made about the case.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy that you are obsessed with your work. :)

    The Dreyfus affair was a huge deal in its day and sadly has been largely forgotten nowadays. (Can't you tell I majored in history in college?)