Joe Lycett talks about his family tree interview

Joe Lycett

Joe Lycett talks about taking part in genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are?. In the programme he sets out to research his family history, starting out with his Edwardian great-grandad, a member of the fraternal RAOB organisation in Nottingham. Things get darker with his two-times great-grandad Robert Wilkinson, a boy chimney sweep in the 1850s. He learns his ancestor eventually joined the Royal Marines and travelled the world - but his story did not end well.

How did you find the experience of being on WDYTYA?

Terrifying and fascinating in equal measure. The producers are very smart in not telling you anything until you are on camera, so everything was a surprise. Sometimes surprises are nice. Sometimes they're not!

Is tracing your family tree something you were interested in prior to coming on the show?

Absolutely. My family had done a little research already but hit a few walls. We learned some genuinely fascinating stuff.

Did you have any worries when coming onto the show about what you might uncover?

Obviously you worry you come from a long line of bad eggs. The reality is much more complicated.

Do you think it's important for people to learn about their family history?

Learning about your own history gives you perspective on your own life and journey. It also gives you lessons in history you might not have had otherwise. I learned about things in the past that I'd probably never have known about.

Joe Lycett

One of the main figures you looked into was Robert - could you briefly summarise what you discovered about him, and his life?

He's on my mum's side, a massively complicated character. He came from a particularly poor background and tried to escape by joining the military forces. But as you can imagine that came with its own challenges!

You discovered a potentially queer story when looking into Robert. How did finding that out make you feel?

Queer stories from the past are pretty difficult to find as they were rarely documented. Robert's could be just have been an intense friendship with a man, or something more. Either way, they had incredibly strong feelings for one another that become poisonous. It became difficult for me to see Robert's story clearly, as I had so little to go on and couldn't work out how much of his story I was applying my own history onto. Regardless, what happened was very dramatic!

Learning about Robert's mental illness was understandably quite emotional for you. Could you talk a bit about the story there?

Mental illness is woefully catered for in 2021 - it was MUCH worse back in Robert's time. He had been through some awful times and struggled with alcohol abuse. Fortunately the legal system spared him from the ultimate sentencing. Interestingly, because of the nature of information when he was alive, I expect most of his family never knew about his struggles with mental illness and the crimes he committed, so it felt strange to think that I knew more about him potentially than his own children and wife.

Having been on WDYTYA, do you think you're more likely to continue to look into your family history?

Absolutely. There's a real appetite in my family now to dig even deeper.

Do you feel creatively inspired by anything that you learnt on your journey? Do you think you'll use anything you discovered in future work?

It's definitely encouraged me to look further into my family history, but also into my own history. Robert's life was a lost cause at one point, but he turned it around and was a completely different person in his later years. A life can take so many shapes.

Can you tell us about anything else you've got coming up?

I'm going on tour with a new stand-up show in 2022. I was thinking about joining the military after that but since learning about Robert I think I'll give it a miss.

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