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Sue Perkins on how emotional it is to trace your family history

The comedian and former Great British Bake Off presenter tells Rachael Davis about discovering her ancestry.

In the rush of everyday life, it’s rare we take the time to think about the ancestors whose life circumstances, decisions and experiences made us who we are today.

But when we do take a look back at the lives of our predecessors, truly fascinating stories can be unearthed – as celebrities discover in each episode of the popular BBC programme Who Do You Think You Are?

Tracing her family history this series is comedian and TV presenter Sue Perkins, best known for her partnership with Mel Giedroyc and for formerly presenting The Great British Bake Off.

So, should we all trace our ancestry?

Sue Perkins’ parents, Bert and Ann Perkins’ wedding photo (BBC/Wall To Wall Media Ltd/Anne Perkins/PA)”I’ve been thinking about it since I lost my dad,” states Perkins, 52. When you lose a parent or a family member, it feels like someone’s snipped one of the cables of the hot air balloon you’ve been flying in. There’s a sense of precariousness.

“For me, I wanted to find out a bit more about my past, but also him. Why am I the person I am? What impact has my ancestry had on my emotional peccadilloes, my ways of thinking, my patterns of behaviour?

“They helped me put together the jigsaw puzzle of my life.

“I associate the Victorian period with something remote – it’s something I studied, something we read, and it’s not touchable. Because my grandfather was 60-plus when my dad was born, he’s very much a child of that time, but I never really fully embraced the fact that that was where he was from.

Sue Perkins’ paternal grandparents Albert and Florence Perkins (BBC/Wall To Wall Media Ltd/Anne Perkins/PA)

“The workhouse, which is where he [her grandfather] was an orphan, is for me an unimaginably antiquated thing, and yet just two generations back, there he was. It was incredibly shocking. Just the word ‘workhouse’ – it’s emblematic of a level of poverty and suffering that you hope we’re beyond, although perhaps not.

“He went from being this rather stern, bearded, ancient man in photographs – this lost figure from another era – to being really fleshed out, and me having a lot of sympathy for him, feeling so heartbroken at the level of loss he sustained when he was just a child. He lost three sets of parents in the end – a step-mum, a mum and a dad – and was then kept apart from his other siblings.

“Just two generations back, that’s how people were living. And that’s the degree of pain they just had to become immune to.”

Perkins discovers many of her ancestors were interned or incarcerated at various points in history, including her great-grandfather on the Isle of Man. “For me, his story is extraordinary,” she says, “because it tells the tale of a very ordinary person caught up in extraordinary geopolitical events.

“I think going to see the concentration camp was… it made a lot of sense to me.

Standing L-R Vera, Lilian Muller, Edward Muller, Alma. Sitting L-R Lydia Muller (Sue’s maternal grandmother), Emil (Sue’s maternal great grandfather), Anna/Anne (Sue’s maternal great grandmother), Gladys Seated on the floor L-R Arthur, Annie. (BBC/Wall To Wall Media Ltd/Anne Perkins/PA)

“I have things that I do, emotional tics, and I wanted to see if they were based on anything from my past: I can’t stand being incarcerated, it’s not full claustrophobia, but I have to move all the time.

“Then you look at that programme, and you look at a paternal grandfather who was incarcerated in a workhouse and then in service, you look at my grandma, who was in service, you look at my grandfather, who was in a camp, and then my great-grandfather was in a camp. My great-grandmother’s family were all in camps, both German camps and Soviet camps.

“It might be a stretch, but also it might not, to say that they know stress and grief and things like that are hereditary and, perhaps, my sense of frustration at confinement comes from that. Pretty much all of them at one point were interned in some way or another, which I found extraordinary.

“For everyone that’s bereaved, you struggle to make sense of the world,” notes Perkins. “And actually, for me, the way that I’ve come to that reckoning is to take the things they gave you that were helpful and made you better, and work on them and amplify them.

Sue Perkins (BBC/Wall To Wall Media Ltd/Stephen Perry/PA)

“I know that my great-grandma crossed horrific, grim mudflats for an eternity and then got on a boat, came to London, lived in a slum, started a brand new life and survived when her husband had been sent away for years.

“She did that. And that’s in me. And I should rise to every challenge I have and be grateful, because I don’t have to live in that environment. You’re shown what you can do with your biology. And if you’re lucky, you get to aspire to it. I feel lucky, because I think they were inspirational folk.”

Perkins admits finding all this out was difficult. “I’m very emotional and sensitive and private, and I did it knowing I might get emotional – I have no shame in that. I think it’s very important, whenever you’re in television, to show the truth of something.

“But it was so overwhelming. My own story just reminds me to try and have better agency, and I’m sure your stories would say exactly the same thing.

“They could take you all over the world, but they’d be the same: somebody would have got caught up in some terrible [circumstance] that wasn’t their fault, and paid the price for it because of their class, or status, or religion, whatever it might be.

“It was a ride. It was a really heavy, brilliant, painful, extraordinary ride.”

Sue Perkins’ episode of Who Do You Think You Are? is on BBC One at 9pm on Thursday, May 26.


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