02 June 2007: Daily Mail

Children of the Lost Empire

Maharajahs. Mau Mau massacres. In a fascinating Channel 4 series, Diana Rigg and other celebrities return to the lands that shaped their lives in an age when Britain still ruled the waves Children of the lost.

Empire Actress Dame Diana Rigg was born in Doncaster in 1938, and moved to India two months later, when it was still part of the British Empire. Her father, Louis, a railway engineer, enjoyed a heady lifestyle of large houses, servants, country clubs and royal banquets. The family returned to England around the time that India won independence.

Diana says: It wasn't until I became a Dame of the British Empire in 1994 that I thought about what it really-meant. After all, the Empire we all knew was shrinking, if not shrunk.

There's quite a lot I can't remember, but I can recall smells and sounds and general impressions of the country. They are kind of spectral and ghostlike. I also remember my mother cooking kedgeree, which was cheap, nutritious and absolutely delicious. It transports me back to my childhood.

There's so much I wished I had asked my parents about Dad's early life working as an engineer for the London and North Eastern Railway, and what prompted him to go to India. But you did not question your parents when I was growing up.

My dad's first boss was the Maharajah of Bikaner, in northeast India, and working for an Indian, rather than a colonial, must have set him apart from the other expats. But English snobbery would have meant that, as a railway engineer, he was pretty low down the pecking order. I was glad to hear from people I met in India who still remembered him, that he was liked and respected by his employers.

In 1929 he qualified for six months' leave and returned home to Doncaster to find a wife. I think he belonged to a tennis club, which is a very good place to audition young women, and his eye fell on my Mum. They returned to India together and got married in Bombay.

I wish I could remember more of the first bungalow in Bikaner, where I lived as a child. It is now derelict and it is sort of interesting coming back to somewhere where you lived which is now a ruin. My parents made thehouse as English as possible and a lot of our early life was spent on the verandah. We were certainly not allowed to go out beyond the walls; it was absolutely forbidden. It was a sort of little enclave here.

My mother had five servants to carryout the household tasks, and there was no guilt at all attached to such apparent extravagance. I remember saying to my mother later, 'How could you possibly have lived like that, with servants in not very good quarters at the back of the house, and us forbidden to go and visit them?' I suppose I was attacking her slightly, poor woman, and I remember her replying, 'Darling, that was just the way it was.' After World War II, there was a sense of unease throughout India. Nobody knew what was going on. By then my father was chief mechanical engineer on the Jodhpur Railway, to the south of Bikaner, with 3,000 staff and 100 locomotives.

Pressure for independence was growing and a lot of railways were being blown up. I don't think the danger to us was very great, but it was there, and my father, like many colonials, took the safe course and sent us home with a view to following later.

I was seven when Dad came back to England, a year after our return. I can remember there being a lot of anxiety between my parents, possibly because of money, which they didn't have much of. The only work my dad could get was in a tanning factory.

One thing that was unfortunately overlooked was my formal education, which was parlous. I failed the entrance exam to Leeds Grammar School. I remember looking at the questions and thinking, 'I don't know what they're talking about.' I ended up with my poor parents paying for me to go to a girl's private school.

It was pretty joyless.

Nowadays, we tend to think of the British Empire as a time of exploitation, but when I went back, many of the Indian people I met saw it as a time of development.

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