Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC 1)

Rachel Cooke bemoans the self-absorption of celebs uncovering their ancestry.

OK, so tell me this. Can you imagine Howard Hodgkin agreeing to go on Who Do You Think You Are? (Wednesdays, 9pm)? Or Bridget Riley? No, I thought not. Me neither; these are possibly great artists with work to do. But Tracey Emin? Yes, a shoo-in (12 October). In fact, it's a wonder it has taken her this long (the eighth series has just ended).

Among many other things, Who Do You Think You Are? is an excellent test of how seriously we should take a person. If, say, Julian Barnes
or Hilary Mantel had a sudden desire to know more about their great-great-grandmothers, one knows instinctively that they would conduct this research privately, out of sight. The "elusive" J K Rowling, however? Hmm. A few weeks ago, there she was, wandering through foreign graveyards prettily.

Thanks to the programme's massed ranks of bearded arch­ivists and balding professors, celebrities (I use this word for its accuracy) seem to regard Who Do You Think You Are? as a more than usually respectable vehicle for their self-promotion - and I suppose that going on the show is a little more dignified than doing a paso doble with Anton du Beke.

On the other hand, haven't they spotted how weird it is? The title sequence, in which our celebs are filmed in slo-mo, trying to look fas­cinated, moved, serious and utterly appealing all at the same time is laugh-out-loud funny; the format - the paper chase from Mum's kitchen to library to cemetery - is tediously predictable; the repetition of any salient facts (archivist first, then celebrity, then voice-over) is apparently aimed at morons.

But I was forgetting: the guests are too self-absorbed to care. For this is the weirdest thing about the show. Its stars are not content merely to learn interesting facts about their forebears. No, what they are really keen to discover is what this information says about them, how
it makes them feel. Which is ludicrous, when you consider that we are talking mostly about people who died centuries ago.

Amazingly, Emin took this all-genes-lead-to-wonderful-me approach a notch further, telling us right from the start that what she didn't want to discover was that her ancestors lived in suburbia. "A cul-de-sac!" she squealed. The thing about Tracey is that she is so cool -
so absolutely and definitively edgy - that she is unwilling to countenance the idea of boring relatives, even if they lived in 1840.

And so, what happened? Were there bay-windowed villas and privet hedges lurking unhelpfully in her past, waiting to take her down like a good review from Brian Sewell?

Of course there weren't. It turned out that her great-grandfather Henry had spent three years at a reformatory school and had served
a short prison sentence thereafter for stealing a violin and two concertinas (the concertinas tickled me but Tracey was more interested in the violin: "A few people in my family play the guitar," she said). Even better, Henry's father, Joseph, belonged to a family of gypsies who made besoms for a living.

What a double-whammy. Witches' broomsticks and gypsies! Emin was beside herself. Having gazed longingly at a couple of photographs of the smoky tents in which Victorian gypsies mostly lived, she declared that her ancestors were "creative people", just like her.

Then, the important thing: how did this make her feel? "I feel like a better person," she announced. She looked about the pastures where once her forebears might have camped. "I wish we were staying," she said, mouth crumpling, an unwarranted tear rolling down her cheek. "It feels nice here."

This was just baffling. Why didn't she check in to the nearest hotel if she couldn't bear to leave? Not that her lightning-bolt "connection" with rural Warwickshire was in any way convincing; she'd spent most of the film droning on about how Shoreditch is the only place she feels at home. Dear me.

My ancestors were shipbuilders and sailors but do I go all salty-sea-dog every time I step aboard a cross-Channel ferry? No. I grew up in Sheffield, for God's sake. Usually, I head straight for the nearest loo, where I hug the porcelain until land is safely in sight.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2011 issue of the New Statesman, This is plan B