History Prof Set to Make TV Debut
Guelph - A University of Guelph historian is about to hit the small screen. Prof. Kevin James will make his major television debut this week on History Televison's hit show Ancestors in the Attic as the on-air genealogist.
James has worked both as a researcher and panelist for the show, which helps Canadians unearth mysteries about their past, during its first three seasons. But last winter, he received a last-minute call from the producers asking if he’d be willing to step into the role of the on-air “lab guy.” Soon James found himself catching a midnight plane to Newfoundland to shoot his first episode.
“They needed someone right away and I guess I fit the bill well enough.”
Life has been a whirlwind ever since, with James hastily joining the actors’ union and getting some on-the-job TV training. For most of 2009, he spent his weekdays researching and teaching Scottish studies at U of G, and his weekends flying all over Canada including to Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Winnipeg to film segments of the show.
“On Fridays, a limousine would pick me up for the airport. I’d fly off, do an 18-hour shoot and come home,” said James, a married father of two children under age four.
“It’s been a juggling act.”
The show kicks off its fourth season Jan. 7 with 10 new shows. They take viewers all around the world as James and others help Canadians find lost relatives and discover the truth behind unsolved family mysteries.
“For me this has been an amazing opportunity to get outside of the University and see how history and research can make a huge difference on a personal level for people who have questions that need to be answered,” James said.
One episode is set in Belarus, where a Canadian woman is searching for a sister who was lost during the Russian Revolution. Another is based in China, where a woman is trying to uncover her father’s secret past. Other stories are set in Switzerland, Denmark, Germany, France and Italy and involve a black market baby, a town’s efforts to hide an injured pilot during World War II, and the life-and-death stories of two Canadian soldiers.
“These are important quests and the stories are deeply personal,” said James. “You get to know the subjects so well, to really care about them as people.”
Two of James’s favourite stories will air Jan. 14. One is about a man named Al Lambert, who was a navigator and squadron commander during World War II. In 1943 he was shot down over occupied France and went missing. His family had no news of his whereabouts for five months before he suddenly surfaced. He never discussed what happened to him. His grandson, Chris Lambert, came to Ancestors in the Attic wanting to retrace his grandfather’s footsteps during that missing period of his life.
“We went over there, to the place where he was shot down, and discovered that he was harboured by an entire town, the whole community took care of him and kept him a secret,” James said. “We found a man who was a 16-year-old boy at the time and remembered the whole story. It was very emotional.”
Another involves two women and some old postcards and letters from Canadian soldiers during World War I. “Both of the soldiers had died, and both women felt the need to track down the families of the respective men and return the postcards and letters. We help them to do this,” James said.
Each episode of the show includes a “reveal” in which the mystery is solved or the answers (or a lack of answers) are unveiled. “We don’t tell them in advance what is going to happen before, so consequently, their reactions are deeply moving,” James said.
"Part of my job is to bring them comfort; I believe it’s the reason I was chosen for this job. I’m an emotional person and I get very emotionally involved with the subjects I am fascinated and moved by their stories.”
Solving the mysteries or unearthing those answers requires a lot of research, including in libraries, online, and in other countries. “We pick stories that are not too easy to solve but that we can still resolve in some way,” he said.
“We don’t even know what is going to happen. We end up with all kinds of dead ends.”
James filmed the “made in Canada” portions of the show, while the show’s star, Jeff Douglas, did the international travel. Douglas is known for his work on the “I am Canadian” commercials.
While he loved working as a researcher and doing some on-air studio work for the show for three years, James never expected to find himself in front of the camera, in the field and trekking all over the country. He said he knew the show was holding a casting call for a new “staff genealogist/lab guy” but he didn’t apply.
“I just never saw myself doing this. I never had any acting lessons or anything.”
He was able to preview the upcoming episodes and said watching himself on TV took a bit of adjusting. “It’s hard to look at yourself this way,” he said, adding he quickly went on a diet and started growing out his curly hair. “I realized that from some angles I was starting to look bald,” he said with a laugh.
“The most exciting thing has been watching my three-year-old son when he saw a tape of the show. He couldn’t understand how I ended up on TV, but he was so excited to see me there.”
Ancestors in the Attic airs Thursdays at 6 and 9 p.m. on History Television.