Comedian Katy Brand used to caricature Kate Winslet as a woman embarrassed by her movie star status and driven mad by her need to appear “down to earth”. In a dirty blonde wig and dishevelled red carpet gown, Brand-as-Winslet would pull out a sausage from her bra and chomp on it to prove what a “normal appetite” she had because she was “a normal mum” with a “normal body” and definitely not a Hollywood A-lister, oh no.
I couldn’t help having this in mind while watching Winslet’s edition of Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC One), during which the Oscar-winning actress repeatedly reminded us how normal she was. “I ain’t posh, mate, not posh at all,” she asserted, as if putting on a Mockney accent would prove it.
First she followed a family rumour of Scandinavian ancestry on her late mother Sally’s side. Delighted when it turned out to be true, she learned that her great-great-grandfather Alfred had moved from Sweden to London in the late 19th century and found success as a Savile Row tailor. “Fabulous!” cried Winslet. “I like this man a lot.”
However, her joy turned to righteous anger when she travelled to Halland in south-west Sweden and uncovered the extreme hardships her ancestors endured, from famine to flogging. Alfred’s grandfather Anders was a stablehand who was caught stealing sacks of potatoes and beehives to feed his malnourished family. He died of typhus in prison aged 43, the same age as the tearful Winslet.
Switching to her father Roger’s side, Winslet discovered a drummer boy in the Grenadier Guards and, this time, an unusually positive encounter with prison. Her three-times-great grandfather William Colquhoun rose to the rank of drum major, before leaving the army to become chief warder at the trailblazing, reformist HMP Dartmoor. “I don’t come from very much,” reiterated Winslet, “so it’s good to see he made something of himself.”
The show’s format was as strong as ever, delivering fascinating social history, but this episode suffered because Winslet was hard to warm to. At times she was a tad sharp with the experts, at others a little too luvvie-ish and, of course, endlessly declaring how humble she was – despite being a multi-millionaire CBE who was once named one of the world’s most 100 influential people by Time magazine.
By the time her closing remarks came, Winslet defied parody. “I try to remain grounded and pass that onto my kids,” she said. “But maybe because I come from such beginnings, that’s actually in my DNA.” So normal, you see. Science says so.