Dead Famous DNA
Dead Famous DNA has to be my most controversial TV project. To be honest, it was marmite television. It polarised viewers. Loads of people loved it. Some folk thought it was utter tosh. And, I respect that, of course. But, for me, it rates right up there with the best of what I have ever done. It’s certainly the most stylish – beautifully shot and crafted by my good friends at Double Act.
You see, I think unravelling the human genome – understanding what the six billion letter code means and how it works – is the most exciting, challenging, fascinating area of modern biology. It is going to revolutionise our lives. Personalised medicine is just the beginning, I am sure. This super specialist area of science is going to have a huge impact on us all, yet few folk have any idea what the genome is or the power it holds. The problem is that it’s a very tricky subject to turn in to prime time populist television. Unless, of course, you can pimp it up a bit and give it a bit of personality. So, that’s what we tried to do.
Over the best part of three years, I travelled the length and breadth of the USA on the most extraordinary road trip. Why the USA ? Simple. If I had tried to do it here, I would have been arrested !
I clocked up some serious mileage, burned tanker loads of cheap gas and met some truly fascinating people – dead and alive. My mission was to track down body parts of some of the most iconic, influential, famous and infamous characters from history. Napoleon, Einstein and JFK were all on the list. So were Elvis and John Lennon. If we could extract and sequence their genomes, we could ask the world’s leading experts to interpret them. How cool would it be to then compare, for each icon, their biology with their biography? By doing it, we hoped to get people talking about DNA – what it is and what the genome can and can’t tell us, for now at least. We wanted to provoke discussion and debate. We succeeded.
As for the results, a mixed bag. It felt like we were a few years too early as the science wasn’t quite where we needed it to be. We were pretty sure we had Elvis in the bag – quite literally. His hair had been collected in a bread bag by his barbour. The genome we sequenced from it was the best that had ever been achieved from a historic hair sample. We discovered that Darwin’s mystery, lifelong illness was almost certainly Crohn’s disease. And, there was a sting in the tale. Just before the films were due to air, we were contacted by the son of an America GI who claimed to have Eva Braun’s vanity case. In it was a hair brush and some hair. If that was Eva’s hair, and it seems incredibly like it was, then the last thing Adolf Hitler did before he shot himself was to marry a Jew.
We set out to be thought-provoking. We didn’t expect that !