Josh Widdicombe’s Who Do You Think You Are? may just have topped Danny Dyer’s

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From Elizabeth I to The Last Leg, the comedian discovered a glittering genealogy which gave the blue-blood geezer a run for his money

Josh Widdicombe’s Who Do You Think You Are? may just have topped Danny Dyer’s
Josh Widdicombe's family history was tangled and fascinating
Josh Widdicombe’s family history was tangled and fascinating CREDIT: Stephen Perry

Each new series of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One) tends to work a bit like a sundae – the really good stuff goes at the top. So it was no surprise to find that episode one, which saw comedian Josh Widdicombe trawl back through his own archive, was sprinkled with revelations.

Widdicombe began at his primary school in Dartmoor, where his class had consisted of four other people with names like Jemma Lee Waghorn. It was, as he said, like something from Enid Blyton. The point was to show just how insignificant and peripheral little Josh had always thought he was – and then, this being WDYTYA, to prove that Josh was proper posh.

The first hint that Widdicombe might be from esteemed stock came from his own recollection that his family had something to do with Barings Bank. That threw a bone to the show’s bloodhound genealogists, and thereafter they gripped it like a mastiff: Widdicombe was taken back in time as the family tree grew and grew, right up from the Baring-Goulds to the first Earl of Holland, through the Civil War, to a 13-time great-grandmother who was a cousin of Elizabeth I. Once it was established that he was of blue blood it became a question of how far back, and how high, this would all go.

“Surely this documentary’s peaked?” said Widdicombe, a dab hand at dumbfoundedness, only to find that of course it hadn’t peaked, and what’s more here was Henry VIII waiting in the wings. The only question became whether Widdicombe could outdo Danny Dyer in the ancestry tombola. Dyer, in a 2016 WDYTYA classic, turned out to have a blood connection to the English rulers William the Conqueror and Edward III. Three years later he was told that his 26th great-grandfather is the French King Louis IX (who was later beatified). 

Danny Dyer provided still competition for most outlandish ancestry
Danny Dyer provided still competition for most outlandish ancestry CREDIT: Stephen Perry

Widdicombe? Well, His 12-times great-grandmother was in a love triangle with Elizabeth I, his “great, great, great… whatever aunt” was Anne Boleyn and his ten-times great-grandfather, Henry Rich, literally wiped Charles I’s bum. Oh, and his 23-times great-grandfather was Edward I, meaning he also has a direct blood line to French royalty. The more he unrolled the scroll the crazier it all became. Normally you expect some tears to be blinked back on WDYTYA but Widdicombe’s eyes just got wider and wider.

With a series as long-running and reliable as Who Do You Think You Are? there is inevitably a problem of diminishing returns. When Widdicombe began the programme saying he was concerned his family would be really boring, I can’t have been the only viewer muttering “like heck, Josh, it’s the first programme of a new series, bet you’re connected to royalty.”

How are Judi Dench or Pixie Lott going to cope in weeks to come when it turns out they’re merely the scions of refugees who cured smallpox while defying the Nazis, or 58th generation clones of robots from Alpha Centauri? Similarly, if Danny Dyer and Josh Widdicombe are both descended from royalty, might not all of us be if we only go back far enough?

Still, these are petty objections set against the simple wonder of a likeable man being filmed reading a plaque in a church that proves Mary Boleyn (the other Boleyn girl) was his great, great etc grandmother. It was terrific stuff, only improvable upon if Ann Widdecombe had turned out to be Josh’s long lost cousin. There must be a link somewhere.

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