What was it like to look back at your family history?
“I found it fascinating. I had a Scottish grandfather, an Italian grandmother and an Irish grandfather. I’m like a mongrel! I’m not truly English, but I know I’m Jewish through my mother’s line. I don’t think we’ll find any blue blood flowing in our veins, but who cares!”
So you would recommend the experience?
“I think that everyone would like to know where they come from. My mother told me all about my relatives on her side, but it was great to look into it in more detail.”
And the search started in the East End?
“Yes, I never really felt like an East Ender, but I knew my mother was. She was born in the Mile End Road and mentioned we had a famous bare knuckle fighter in the family, whose name was Isaac Bitton, so I wanted to find out more about him. For me the experience was rather like reading a detective novel. I’m a very curious person. I like to know everything, really. I don’t care what I find out as long as I find out something.”
Was the saddest part when you looked into the life of Isaac’s mum, Rachel?
“Yes, I didn’t expect to weep, though I had some waterproof mascara! I felt for Rachel, for the difficulty and sadness of her life. She was left alone to raise four children while her husband Abraham and son Isaac looked for work in London. As a Jewish family in Holland, they faced religious prejudice and earning money was tough. They must have lived always on edge. I think it must have been particularly hard for Rachel when her husband left. It must have been dreadful not to know what happened to her son, but she couldn’t get across the channel and there wasn’t a telephone. She would have lived her life in constant worry.”
And there was great sadness with her children?
“Yes, I feel an affinity with Rachel, partly because I’ve lost one child [June’s second daughter, Chloe, was born prematurely and died just 16 days later], my mother lost two children and Rachel lost all of them in the end. She was widowed and I’m twice widowed [her first husband, the actor John Garley, took his own life in 1957]. What it must have been like for her at the very end when she had no children and no husband… I’m quite sure she gave up.”
Did the experience also strengthen your faith?
“Yes, They talk about ‘The Wandering Jew’ and my ancestors seem to have wandered all the time. They couldn’t put down any roots because they were constantly being torn up and they had to move on. I don’t like to be unsettled, I don’t like not knowing where I’m going or what I’m doing. I don’t know if it’s just the way I was born or if it’s a memory of being moved on. I feel more connected now, the experience was a consolidation of my Jewishness. I’d like to find out more about my other grandparents. I enjoyed the experience immensely and I hope others enjoy watching it.”