It is not fair to compare the British and American versions of Who Do You Think You Are. The British version is on the BBC, which is funded by the state, and thus does not need to rely on commercials and sponsorships. Moreover, an hour program in Britain is really an hour, not the 40-some odd minutes of American broadcast television. (PBS and HBO being notable exceptions, of course.) The BBC version also lacks the blatant Ancestry plugs in the British version; the one from today (35 minutes in) was clearly added in later after the episode had been reedited for American television.
The flaws of the American WDYTYA, which I have commented on so many times in the past, are all the more apparent when the show imports an episode from the British series and tries to fit it into the American paradigm. This is actually the second time this happened, the first being the Kim Cattrall episode. Unlike that one however, I never actually saw the Minnie Driver episode in its entirety. Tonight was the first time I saw it. Nevertheless, the attempts to format it for a trip across the Atlantic were very awkward and apparent. Despite the fact that the episode was both intense and engaging, the narrative flow was also jarring. I was also left wondering if the questions I had after the episode had been answered for British viewers. In truth, the British episodes have a very different feel to them, and the Minnie Driver episode is an oddity, because it had that British feel, but because of the time limits, it felt somewhat patchwork (aided by with dubbed in mood music and celebrity narration for quick transition).
Minnie Driver was born in London but now lives in Los Angeles with her son Henry. Her dad Charles Ronald “Ronnie” Driver died when Henry was just over a year old. For Henry’s sake, Minnie wanted to learn about Ronnie’s family. Ronnie never spoke about his parents or his past.
Ronnie and Minnie’s mother Gaynor met around 1962. They never married and broke up when Minnie was six. Ronnie was married to someone else the entire time he was with Gaynor, and he had another family. Ronnie’s mother was alive when Minnie was a child, but they never met; Minnie never even saw a photo of her grandmother.
And dear readers, especially if you have seen this episode in the British version, perhaps you know the answer to this, but did Minnie know her father’s other family? Or have any kind of relationship to them? Because I wondered if Minnie had half-siblings, and did those siblings ever meet Ronnie’s mother or know anything about her?
Minnie began her journey in London at her mother’s residence. Minnie had a copy of her father’s birth certificate and a copy of a book that listed her father’s Royal Air Force service. Gaynor knew about the RAF service, but she never asked about it. It bothered her that Ronnie was married, but she never pressed that either. She said she thought Ronnie was hiding something, but she did not want to dig up whatever that was.
Ronnie was born in Swansea, Wales in 1921 to English and Scottish parents–Charles Edmund Driver and Mary Jessie Kelley, who, like Minnie’s parents, were not married. In the RAF service book that Minnie had, there was a picture of Ronnie. He was awarded the second Distinguished Flying Medal given out during World War II, but he told Gaynor that he threw the medal into the Thames, claiming he did not deserve it.
Before digging into Ronnie’s familiar history, Minnie went to learn about his RAF service. Ronnie was 18 when he first saw battle, the Battle of Helligoland Bight of 1939, which was the first named air battle of World War II. The British were confident of their air superiority with their Vickers Wellington bombers, but the Luftwaffe routed the RAF. Of the 22 Wellingtons that were in battle, 12 were destroyed and another three were damaged.
Minnie was given an account of the battle in a book called Epics of the RAF. Her father’s heroics were detailed. He beat out a fire with his bare hand and saved the lives of most of his fellow airmen. He did however, lose his best friend in battle. Minnie said that when her sister named her daughter Lily, Ronnie cried and cried. They never asked why, and assumed it was because of the birth of his granddaughter. In actuality, this friend’s surname was Lilly (Lily?).
Minnie was then introduced to Derek Alloway, an RAF veteran who knew Ronnie. He talked to Minnie about what happened at the battle and showed her an official report, which detailed how Ronnie helped save the crew, who survived largely because of his actions, and nearly at the cost of his life. Alloway however, never saw Ronnie after the battle.
Minnie went to the RAF museum where she was given the transcript of an interview done with her father. He talked about his background as well as the events of the battle. The interview was to be used as a propaganda piece to encourage other young men to get involved and also to forget that the battle was a very heavy defeat. Minnie was given a copy of Ronnie’s home town paper from shortly afterwards where there was a clip about Ronnie’s mother welcoming her son home and a picture of her with Ronnie.
Ronnie received his medal in 1940, but the next entry in his file was his discharge shortly thereafter. He was discharged to the RAF Hospital in Matlock, a psychiatric hospital. Minnie went to Matlock to learn more about his diagnosis, which was anxiety. He was given sleep medication and time to himself. Today, undoubtedly he would have been diagnosed with Posttraumatic stress disorder, especially as later that year (December 1940) he was again admitted to a psychiatric hospital, this time the RAF Liverpool in Ealing.
Yet, Ronnie stayed with the RAF. In 1943 he was commissioned as a pilot officer, and in 1944, he was promoted to flying officer. There was even a portrait from the Portrait Gallery of his wedding day to his wife Ann. Notably, despite wearing his uniform, he did not have his Distinguished Flying Medal, and Minnie said she understood why he threw the medal in the river.
Ronnie’s father Charles died when he was young, and Minnie wanted to know more about him, so she traveled to Stockton to learn more. It turned out that Ronnie’s parents did marry, but in 1936 when Ronnie was 15. Minnie had to wait for the marriage certificate though, which she could not order online. Instead she looked for Charles in the 1891 Census. He was one of five children born to John and Sarah Driver. (John was from Ipswich and Sarah from Ireland).
Minnie wanted to know if she had any relatives from that side of the family and the researcher, who clearly knew the answer, led her through the descendants of Charles’s younger sister Maud, whose granddaughter (and Minnie’s second cousin) Jean Eileen Cranson Wiper was still alive and 84-years-old. Minnie got her address and phone number and called her. Jean, who goes by Eileen, had wondered in the past if Minnie was a relative. She did known Ronnie’s parents Charles and Mary (who went by Jessie). She described Charles as a lovely gentleman and Jessie as an outgoing, fun person. Eileen did not know why they married so later, and she could not remember seeing any pictures, which Minnie desperately wanted.
(At this point I was wondering a question which would never be answered, at least on the American version. Why did Ronnie cut off all ties with his family? Why did his daughter never know her grandmother? Those were questions that no one ever addressed, and they are the first ones I would have asked.)
After meeting Eileen, Minnie got the marriage certificate, which listed Jessie as a widow and Charles as a widower. Minnie wanted to know when Charles’s first wife died (I do not think anything was mentioned about when Jessie’s first husband died, which I guess meant there was no story.) Prior to his marriage to Jessie, Charles was married to Ada Wood Stancliffe. Charles and Ada had a son Leslie, whom Minnie never knew existed.
Minnie wondered if Ronnie knew about Leslie, and acknowledged that yes, he probably did. Leslie was an actor, which made Minnie very happy to hear that there was someone else who had the calling. Minnie went to a theater where one of the WDYTYA experts told her Leslie was the lead in a 1945 production at the (now destroyed) Hippodrome in Stockton. He gave her the program, where she saw that Leslie went by Les Stancliffe, and that was not all; Leslie’s daughter Jean Stancliffe was also in the production.
The WDYTYA people had contacted Jean, and she said she would be happy to speak to Minnie, who called her. I am interested to know what the full conversation was like, and if they talked about what Leslie’s relationship was like to his father and stepmother (and Ronnie), given that he took his mother’s maiden name for a stage name. But it also seemed like his daughter had a relationship with Jessie. (This episode left me with so many questions.) Jean had no memories of Charles, but she did have a photograph of Charles and Jessie. Jean was unable to meet up with Minnie, but did send her a copy of the photo, which allowed Minnie to see her grandfather for the first time. She teared up as she showed the photo to Henry who thought they looked very handsome. Minnie was left wondering why her father kept everything so secret, and she wished she could talk to him again.
I have said before that episodes focusing on one person are very powerful, especially when the ancestor investigated is a close one. The Christina Applegate episode is, I believe, the high point of the American series. Minnie Drive, like Rita Wilson, investigated the secret life of her father, which (like Wilson’s) made for a very compelling story. (It is no shock to me that the Rita Wilson episode was played immediately afterwards by TLC.)
And with that, this season of WDYTYA has come to an end. It definitely had its moments, and I look forward to seeing whose stories we are able to see in January. I hope you have enjoyed the season reading my blog. I had fun writing it.