If you looked far enough back into anyone’s family tree, you’d be sure to find some scandal or other along the way. But how much more salacious is it when it’s a celebrity who has dirty laundry in their past, even if we’re talking generations back?
That’s part of the appeal of Who Do You Think You Are? - discovering that famous people are descended from all sorts of scoundrels, black sheep and ne’er-do-wells. Sure, sometimes the show’s process unearths heroes, royal lineage and other things to be proud of. But that’s boring. We want the dirt. And over 10 seasons, there’s been plenty to go around.
As season 11 of the British institution begins on SBS this week, there are more surprises in store – including a massive reveal about the murder of comedian Brendan O’Carroll’s grandfather in a few weeks’ time. Here are some of the biggest shocks so far…
The star of Sherlock and The Hobbit movies learnt a number of facts about his great-grandfather, Richard. He was blind, worked as an organist and probably gave at least one of his wives syphilis. As a result of the disease, six of Richard and his third wife’s 12 children passed away. Given the health standards in the late 19th century, that’s not so unusual. The real scandal was the undisclosed reason why Richard was sacked from his position as church organist, said to be “well known” to the readers of the parish magazine.
It was no news at all to the British actress and former pop star that her father had been an associate of London’s notorious Kray brothers – she grew up knowing that. But what she didn’t realise was that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree and her grandfather also had criminal tendencies. Kensit's granddad served time for robbery and counterfeiting.
Councillor. Butcher. Murderer? That’s the question surrounding Charles Garrett, the great-great-grandfather of the opera singer. Her otherwise well-respected ancestor was suspected – by his own son and daughter-in-law, no less – of doing away with his wife, Mary. The death was officially recorded as accidental, but it was thought that Charles had swapped Mary’s medication for carbolic acid.
The actress known for her roles in ER and Doctor Who wasn’t expecting to learn that one of her ancestors had run a brothel. Her widowed great-great-great-great-grandmother, Elizabeth Braham, was listed on the 1851 census as a “lodging house keeper”. Sounds innocent enough, but the house was definitely of ill repute and was even the scene of a suicide by one of the prostitute’s clients. Still, sex sells – and Elizabeth left behind a tidy sum when she passed away.
Comedian Vic Reeves went into Who Do You Think You Are hoping for a scandal – and he got one. Kind of. Reeves’ maternal grandfather, Simeon Leigh, appears to have been a bigamist. He was certainly married twice, with no record of divorce or death ending the first union before he wed again.
Laurence Llewelyn Bowen
Roger Twist, the great-great-grandfather of the interior design expert, crewed on ships from the age of 11 and quickly worked his way up the rank of captain. But the lure of a quick buck led Roger to desert his post and try his luck on Melbourne’s gold fields during the Gold Rush. When that didn’t, er, pan out, Roger falsified his records to cover up his desertion and picked up where he left off.
The model was faced with scandal in two branches of her family tree. Kidd’s great-grandfather, successful shipbuilder Rowland Hodge, was convicted of food hoarding during World War I, forcing him to up sticks and relocate. Rowland later paid for a baronetcy in the original Cash for Honours scandal. Over in Canada, her great-great-great-grandfather’s brother, John Dury, went on a shooting spree over a land dispute – killing a third brother before turning the gun on himself.
As a journalist, Rantzen knew that the gaps in her family’s history probably indicated something salacious – and she was right. The TV presenter discovered that at age 18, her great-grandfather, Montague Leverson, accidentally shot and killed a parlour maid who worked for the family. That wasn’t all. Montague went on to work as a solicitor but fled the country, leaving behind a wife and four kids, shortly after it was discovered that clients’ money had disappeared. Years later, he resurfaced in the UK – and married a woman half his age.
For Cumming, something didn’t quite add up about the death of his maternal grandfather, Thomas Darling. The official explanation was that Thomas, a career soldier, had died while cleaning his gun. However, the star of The Good Wife determined that the fatality actually occurred while Thomas was playing Russian roulette.
The celebrity chef was expecting that there would be a history of slavery in his family’s past. What he didn’t realise was that he would have ancestors on both sides of the slave trade. Turns out his great-great grandfather James Harriott was a white man who traded in slaves, and came from a long line of slave owners.
Watch series 11 of Who Do You Think You Are? UK on Saturday 26 March at 7:30pm (AEDT) on SBS.