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Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Heir Hunters

Heir Hunters
Series 4, Episode 20
BBC One, 12/02/10, 9.15am

King Edward admires the sleuthing skills of those who make a living from tracking down relatives of people who have died intestate.

I have only recently discovered this hidden gem of a daytime programme, which features a blend of social history documentary and fly-on-the-wall footage.

It opens in the same way each time: a fast-edited montage of files, coins, old photos, and London landmarks flashes before me. A voiceover explains that each year "thousands" of people (and I overlook the imprecise nature of this statistic; I am aware of my failings as I grow older, and pedantry is sadly one of them) die each year without leaving a will, and that "keeping this money in the family is a job for the heir hunters." There follows some further, slightly vague detail about these inheritances going "to the goverment" (illustrated by some jauntily-angled shots of the Houses of Parliament).

The first time I saw
Heir Hunters, I wasn't sure I'd like it. Documentary-lite is not my usual bag. But, I assure you: it's a grower. I look forward to each episode now, and often take my morning coffee in front of the widescreen, feet up on a pouffe, wondering what stories will be told that day.

It's like a detective drama without the unsettling inclusion of a violent and bloody death; though death is of course mentioned in this show, it is not the central focus. Nor, slightly suprisingly, is money. The most interesting tales are often those which involve relatively small inheritances, but which take us on a fascinating trip through the life and family history of an ordinary person. Being regal myself, this fascinates me more than most, and I must confess that some rainy afternoons I re-enact the lives I have seen on
Heir Hunters, using cut-out figures in my father's antique Bavarian shadow-puppet theatre (which, of course, I myself inherited when he passed on; a nice nod to the gist of the show, I think. Though nobody had to hunt for me when he went. I was just downstairs at the time, taking tea with a friend).

The stories in this particular episode of
Heir Hunters were noteworthy, particularly the one about Tadeusz Gaweda, a Polish soldier who died in 1991. The stories are told in a simple chronological manner, with a mixture of recount from the heir hunters, and exposition via voiceover, over photographs and some simple graphics (usually family trees).

Gaweda's story covered his journey to the UK via Germany and Russia, and showed his son (who had been discovered living in Spain) visiting the camp where Gaweda lived when he came here. The background music and script play on the drama and emotion of the tale, but perhaps rightly so; after all, it is a dramatic and emotional story, made even more so by the fact that it is true.
Heir Hunters does this well, without overdoing it, and though this particular case had a pan-European flavour, the other, perhaps simpler cases shown in this and other episodes are no less involving for the viewer.

On this show, subjects are portrayed in an affectionate (or at worst neutral) tone;
Heir Hunters passes no judgement on those whose lives it documents. Beneficiaries are allowed to express pleasure at unexpected inheritances, again with no judgement, and their stories are further personalised by some discussion of what the money will be used for, and how this will impact on the life story of the heirs.

Meanwhile, viewers are allowed glimpses into the methods used by the heir hunters, perhaps enabling them to pick up tips for tracing their own lineage; I must confess this passes me by somewhat, given that my own family records are housed in an oak-panelled room, and staffed by a full-time archivist. He's in the middle of transferring everything to computer just now; well, to his iPhone, to be exact. We're all rather excited about that.

The commission-based nature of the heir hunters' work is not dwelt upon, which I think is a good decision by the producers. The programme manages to create a charming, nostalgic tone from material which, in other hands, could be edited in a manner which would incite the use of the word "grasping."

A bit like a junior school history project about someone's grandad,
Heir Hunters is genuinely interesting, largely unchallenging, and uses a full range of visual illustrative techniques. It's enjoyable.

Over and out,

King Edward

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