tThe creators of SBS’s family history show, Who Do You Think You Are?, won’t reveal the final version of the show to the contestants, so Simon Bakker takes my word for it that his episode is an excellent and very moving piece of television.
The 52-year-old actor had been approached a few times to do the show, but always said no, “despite my mom, sister and kids saying ‘you have to do it’.” Finally he capitulated: “I thought, I’ll see what kind of adventure it is and where it all takes me.”
In his episode, the first of the hugely popular SBS In the show’s 13th season, historians unravel Baker’s Dutch-Australian heritage — with a focus on what took place in Australia. (Filming during international border closures meant anything outside the country would have been difficult anyway.)
The actor and director had recently returned to Australia after spending decades of his career in California, where he had starring roles in the hit television series The Mentalist and The Guardian. Since returning home, he has directed an adaptation of Tim Winton’s novel Breath, and more recently appeared in artist Del Kathryn Barton’s feature film debut, Blaze†
The final invitation to the show came at the right time for Baker. “I’ve seen the show before and people have a really good idea of what they wanted out of it,” he says. “I didn’t really have that, but it came to a point in my life recently where there were a lot of shifts and changes, so it was a good time to take stock.”
Baker was born in 1969 in Launceston. His father, Barry Baker, was a mechanic and school attendant, and his mother, Elizabeth, was a high school English teacher. She was only 19 when Baker was born, the second of two children born to the Bakers.
“And soon after, my parents moved with two children to the highlands of New Guinea, to a remote area,” he says. On the show, he sums up the family’s short time: “They went on this incredible adventure — and they didn’t get back together.”
His mother remarried. Baker was in touch with his father, but as he reveals on the show, “I didn’t know he was my father. He was a family friend, Uncle Barry. I struggled with that.”
A reunion was to take place when Baker was 18 years old, but in the meantime the family moved to the northern NSW beach community of Lennox Head, where Baker became an avid surfer.
“It was a small community and then it was an idyllic place to live,” Baker says. “I felt very much at home there and I still do. In that respect it was a phenomenal childhood, but personal family life was difficult.”
Before moving on to Who Do You Think You Are?, “Baker saw my immediate family back as kind of a mess,” he says. “But the truth is that families come in many different forms and I think if you can look at your own past and the past of your ancestors with compassion, you can carry that with you with a little more wisdom.”
Revealing his parents’ story was “challenging,” he says. “I’m quite shy… But there’s a kind of psychological reason why I became an actor. The first wish when I was young was about connecting with people, the idea of seeing someone in a story on a screen that you could identify with, and it could help you understand feelings in yourself that you didn’t necessarily know. how to express them. When I watched certain episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? I felt a connection with that person – and with that you don’t feel so alone.”
Baker delves into both sides of his family tree, each branch yielding amazing stories. There’s the three-times great grandfather, an orphan with a connection to Oscar Wilde who eventually opened Melbourne’s first eye and ear hospital (now the Royal Victoria). There are the ancestors who walked for weeks from the Adelaide Hills to just outside Ballarat in search of gold with their six children in tow. And his paternal grandmother, a particularly resilient woman who overcame poverty and raised her children alone after World War II.
“Doing the show really shines a light on your own insignificance,” Baker says. “All these ancestors have these stories, and some of them are so remarkable and powerful. I still think constantly of the ancestor who walked to Ballarat.”
How would Baker have fare, in the circumstances of his ancestors? “I would have gone well. All the harshness of the conditions were relative to the time. The luxury we now enjoy shapes our perspective. What people did in the past, such as walking to Ballarat, may seem outrageous to us now. But when you went to the gold fields, the only way to get there was on foot.”
Each side of his family tree experienced both wealth and poverty, and their stories illustrate exactly how money can determine fate.
“I understood the family from my father’s side, because I grew up in a working-class environment,” he says. “But at the same time, my life has given me enough money to be financially stable. Sometimes, with privilege, you can get to a place where you assume everyone is in a place where they have a choice. Sometimes it is difficult for privileged people to keep their heads together that the vast majority of people have times of struggle.”
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