TV review: Una learns of her humble York connections

Una Stubbs… story started in York
25 Jul 2013 @ 7.24 pm
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Una Stubbs… story started in York. Photograph: BBC
Una Stubbs… story started in York

I’ve loved Una Stubbs since I was eight and I saw her getting romantically involved with Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday. “Cliff’s girlfriend was the nicest,” I told my grandmother as we came out of the Odeon cinema in Manchester.

My early crush was the subject of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1), a programme which returned this week for series ten and shows no signs of outstaying its welcome. Una personified the perfect guest, and the family history was remarkable.

It’s often said that there are only seven or eight stories in the world including the quest for truth, which comes with the territory in Who Do You Think You Are? But murder and revenge were perhaps the only ones absent here.

Una learned about her grandmother giving birth in a York workhouse and her great-grandfather’s rise from humble stenographer to found the garden city movement, and she came upon a series of remarkable coincidences along the way.

Her grandfather was a factory worker here at Rowntree’s, before losing his job and moving to Welwyn Garden City. On the other side of the family, Ebenezer Howard, founder of Welwyn Garden City, was a friend of Seebohm Rowntree.

And, another coincidence, Una had visited Rowntree’s during her early 20s, when she was the television face of Dairy Box. We were treated to a clip of the old TV advertisement, a wonderfully gamine young Una interacting charmingly with the confectionery.

How does the subject of Who Do You Think You Are? find the right words when confronted with all the revelations? Una never strived too hard. Her comment that life “wouldn’t be great” in the workhouse didn’t quite hit the nail on the head, as anyone who’s read his Dickens knows.

But where she scored was in emoting so beautifully. Una really felt everything that her forbears were going through. She was pained by their suffering and elated by their triumphs as when she looked weepily at the monument to Ebenezer in Welwyn GC.

Una Stubbs’ paternal grandparents, circa 1950s. Arthur Stubbs, Annie Stubbs
Una Stubbs’ paternal grandparents, circa 1950s. Arthur Stubbs, Annie Stubbs

Curiously, Una had known only the barest details about her illustrious great-grandfather’s life. There seems to have been a rather English feeling that it was wrong to “show off” by examining these high-flying connections too closely. Or perhaps, like me, she had little real interest in where she came from, until she was approached by the programme makers.

But that is one of the secrets of the programme’s success. It’s not just what the subjects learn but how they respond to a past about which they might previously have lacked much curiosity. Jeremy Paxman was never so human as when he learned how grim it had been Up North for his ancestors.

Incidentally, there’s a new voiceover on Who Do You Think You Are? Cherie Lunghi brings the same qualities that made her predecessor, Mark Strong, so good: warmth and objectivity.

One hesitates to think how Fiona Bruce, with all those dodgy intonations that betray a keenness to tell us what to think, would have handled it. Leaving all the emotional stuff to the show’s subject is the key, even if the show-business folk can overdo it sometimes.

Is Una Stubbs just a good actress who knows how to pull the heart strings? I don’t think so. It clearly meant a lot to her. For me, Cliff’s old flame from their London Bus days is still the nicest.

Exotic figures: Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham-Carter) and Richard Burton (Dominic West). Photograph: BBC
Exotic figures: Elizabeth Taylor (Helena Bonham-Carter) and Richard Burton (Dominic West). Photograph: BBC

In my early teens, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were exotic figures (Burton and Taylor, BBC4). For someone whose class included only one child from what we used to call “a broken home”, all those divorces and affairs were something to marvel at.

Burton and Taylor came as a pair and were as much quintessential 1960s’ figures as The Beatles – a point made in the documentary, The Richard Burton Diaries, that followed Monday’s drama.

But watching Burton and Taylor, and the fine performances by Dominic West and Helena Bonham Carter, it was interesting to note that the differences between them were just as important as the similarities, and doubtless pulled them apart.

The drama focused on the 1983 New York stage production of Noel Coward’s Hay Fever which Burton approached with total professionalism while Taylor remained the Hollywood star, flouncing out at one point so that the show’s run had to be put briefly on hold.

The adulation with which Taylor’s stage entrances were received by the American audience, despite panto-like performances which would have made Berwick Kaler blush, were astonishing.

We do things differently here. When the actor-manager Donald Wolfit was performing in the Midlands during the 1950s, he instructed his cast to pause for a few seconds after he came on stage.

“They will remember me and want to acknowledge my arrival,” he said.

Wolfit emerged to total silence before a single Brummie voice could he heard saying: “Look, it’s old F**k Face come back.”