Want to know what goes into making an episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’? With season nine airing on SBS in 2018, Cassie Mercer speaks to Robyn Smith, a researcher on the hit TV series, to discover how the program comes to life.
Transcribing Russian documents, discovering historical portraits hanging in old barns and tracking down distant relatives are all in a day’s work for ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘ researcher Robyn Smith. Robyn’s work on the show goes all the way back to season one, when she was researching actor Jack Thompson’s family tree for the very first episode.
“I love the challenge of looking at a family tree – with all the names on it – and working through them to find whose stories will surprise and interest us – and our celebrity – the most,” says Robyn.
Fast forward to 2018 and it’s a challenge Robyn still readily accepts, having worked on four of the eight celebrities featured in season nine, starting on SBS on 17 April.
Robyn researched the stories of Ernie Dingo, Charlie Teo, Noni Hazlehurst and Justine Clarke. Celebrities Natalie Imbruglia, John Jarratt, Todd McKenney and Patti Newton make up the rest of the cast.
“[The four I worked on] were a challenging group of stories,” reveals Robyn. “Justine’s went back to Belarus; and Charlie’s to Singapore and Malaya so my language skills were tested.”
“It is always much harder when you can’t read documents and pick up the tiny clues that might be there.
“In each case I had to rely on local researchers, who often were not experienced in genealogy. And I learnt that Google translate, while a wonderful tool, can make some interesting translations. In Justine’s case, I tracked down a relative in Canada. His father spoke fluent Russian. I sent my letters of introduction in Google’s Russian to him and he would have a good laugh, before correcting them and sending them on to the elderly relative in Russia who we wished to film with.”
‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ is a very research-intensive show, explains Robyn. “There are generally three researchers working on the program. It’s hard to say how long it takes to research [each episode], as we tend to work across more than one story at once and each one really needs a couple of months. Sometimes a story comes together easily, other times it needs a huge amount of digging. Because we rely on primary sources, we often need to wait for documentation to arrive – which can take weeks.”
As well as working on Jack Thompson’s tree for season one, Robyn also researched the family histories of Kate Ceberano, Ita Buttrose and Geoffrey Robertson. Then Sigrid Thornton, Maggie Beer and Magda Szubanski for season two. “I moved on to other work after season two, then came back for season eight, doing the Peter Garrett, Shane Jacobson and John Newcombe episodes,” she says. “They have all been different and fascinating.
“I have particular affection for the very first one, Jack Thompson. There were so many parallels with his own life. His ancestor turned out to be a convict – which Jack proudly proclaimed as Australian royalty. And his name, Patrick, was the same as Jack’s son. When I journeyed up to the north coast, where his ancestor had settled (not so far from where Jack was living) I found a distant relative with the largest family tree – which she promptly rolled out right across the floor of the coffee shop where we met. I also happened across some distant relatives who had portraits of Jack’s ancestor, Patrick and his wife, hanging in the barn above the tractors.
“Finding the family line depends a bit on how much the celebrity already knows – we tend to steer away from the ancestors they know a lot about. It’s generally balanced on what the celebrity is interested in and who ends up having the most interesting story.”
As for the future, whose family tree would Robyn like to work on? “I would rather like to do Tim Minchin’s story … and Paul Keating’s.”
‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ airs at 7.30pm (AEST), Tuesdays on SBS, starting April 17 and on SBS on Demand.
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Cassie Mercer is an editor based in Sydney. She founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010, creating a following of 60,000+ readers and working with Australia’s key cultural institutions to bring the nation’s history to life across Inside History’s multi-channel platforms. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s, one was a highwayman in Dublin and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.