Who Do You Think You Are? A compelling journey with ruff diamond Danny Dyer

Danny Dyer confounded expectations in Who Do You Think You Are?

Danny Dyer confounded expectations in Who Do You Think You Are?

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Danny Dyer. He’s the living embodiment of chirpy Cockney sparrer-dom, isn’t he? Star of countless films about moody geezers and football hooligans, current landlord of TV’s most dramatic boozer the Queen Vic – if you cut him, he probably bleeds jellied eels.

Which is why I approached the latest series of the BBC’s ancestor-bothering Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1, Thursdays, 8pm) with trepidation.

Surely professional Cockney Dyer would come from generations of dodgers, duckers and divers? Hardly the stuff of an interesting programme.

As he himself says: “They’re going to be expecting me to be related to criminals... I’d like to freak a few people out.”

And then there’s the problem of Dyer himself. His celluloid record is hardly inspiring, and he sometimes comes across in interviews as charmless and aggressive.

Which is why this particular episode was such a pleasant surprise.

The stories in Who Do You Think You Are? are often awe-inspiring, uplifting or tragic, yet seeing Dyer – sitting in a library, peering at a historian over a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses – learn that his impoverished great-great grandmother was convicted of hiding the body of her baby, having made a tragic mistake, was somehow heart-breaking.

So far, so East End poverty. But Dyer’s story took increasingly baroque turns, as it turned out the family fortune was lost by an ancestor on the losing side in the Civil War. Then we learned the in-laws, and that means Danny himself, were related to Henry VIII’s chief adviser Thomas Cromwell – you know, Mark Rylance out of Wolf Hall.

And then the story took an even more bizarre twist. Suffice to say that, should a crumbling Buck House fall on the Royal Family during this year’s Christmas dinner, we could see King Danny sitting on the throne.

Dyer proved to be an engaging, interested, funny person to go on this amazing – dread TV buzzword coming up – journey with.

Each revelation was greeted with stunned gasps, as the colour drained from his face, from meeting distant relative Lord Tollemache – “the geezer’s got a *bleep* drawbridge. Let’s have a bit of bunny with a lord” – to the final, incredible reveal in Westminster Abbey. It ends with Dyer pledging “to get meself a ruff”.

Was I freaked out? Absolutely, but also charmed, entertained, and educated. What more could you ask from a TV show?