Presented by Nicky Campbell, the actors were given detailed breakdowns of their ethnic heritage – derived from DNA testing – and then followed as they travelled around the globe seeking to find the secrets hidden deep in their family trees.
Genealogical DNA testing is becoming an ever more popular way to identify an individual's ancestry. Using a saliva sample, a person's DNA is analysed at specific locations across their genome. This information is then tested against a huge DNA database to determine which ethnic groups an individual is descended from, and any other individuals to whom they may be related. These types of tests are not used to identify medical conditions or disorders.
Three-quarters of the Coronation Street cast members who took the DNA test were born and bred in northern England. But on average their British ancestral ethnicity was only 36 percent – roughly matching that of the UK as a whole. The cast covered up to 17 different ethnic groups, with Scandinavian origins common to 95 percent of the cast – not that surprising for those familiar with English history.
During the programme, each cast member met host Nicky Campbell and genealogist Megan Owens, in the auspicious surroundings of Roy's Rolls café. The pair presented them with their ethnic ancestry and left the actors to delve into their family trees and uncover the secrets in their past.
First up was Sally Ann Matthews, who has played Jenny Bradley in the soap for many years and is currently landlord of the Rovers Return. Matthews found that 68 percent of her ethnic ancestry was from the Midlands and North West, twice that of the national average. No surprises there, but she did discover that she was related to another cast member. Heading to Ashton-under-Lyne in search of the 'Ashworth' family tree, Matthews was delighted to find that via her three-times-great grandparents, she was the cousin of Amanda Barrie, who played the character Alma Baldwin on the street for many years.
A more unusual discovery was Paddy Wallace's ethnic ancestry. His results showed that he was 99 percent Celtic – a unique finding suggesting that his ancestors were from a very isolated community. Tracing his roots back to Inishturk, an island off the west coast of Ireland, Wallace found that not only was he related to the fisherman who took him to the island of his roots, but also the local historian who informed him that he was sat in the very house in which his grandmother had been born.
But arguably the most interesting findings were those of Shelley King, who experienced life-changing revelations about her ancestry and sense of ethnic identity.
Although brought up in India, Shelley King believed she was of mixed British and Portuguese heritage. However, her DNA test showed that in fact she was 59 percent Asian. She had no Portuguese ancestry at all.
Her presumed Portuguese lineage – and origin of the name D'Cruz – was simply due to the huge Portuguese presence in India from the late 15th century, which led to many Indians converting to Christianity and being given Portuguese names. Having found Asian ethnicity in one side of her family, she then discovered another surprise on the other side of her family tree. Her grandfather's grandfather, whom she had believed to be of Scottish ancestry, had actually been conceived in a relationship between his English father and an Indian woman, whose identity remains unknown. Despite the stigma that her family would have felt over 200 years ago following these revelations, Shelley now said she felt like 'a whole person'.
The programme gave a fascinating insight into the ethnic diversity that exists across the UK and was perhaps most interesting from a historical rather than a scientific standpoint. As a science researcher, I would have perhaps liked a little more information on how the genealogical DNA-testing works. But given that the programme was aimed at a broad, non-scientific audience, the explanations were clear and informative.
As the programme focused mainly on the north-west of England, I would be interested to see how ethnic diversity varies across the whole of the UK. If we're lucky, may be the producers will do something similar with the cast of EastEnders next.
All in all, Coronation Street's DNA Secrets was an entertaining watch. It was fascinating to discover that a simple DNA test can place a person on a path of discovery leading to life-changing revelations. I must admit I am now very tempted to investigate my own ancestral background.