30 June 2007: Yorkshire Post

Empire of the sons and daughters

Diana Rigg, daughter of a Doncaster railwayman, was born in India and her fascinating story is one of several in a new series about the legacy of the British Empire on our national identity. Grace Hammond reports

Dame Diana Rigg was born in India in the final days of the British Raj. She returns to the scenes of her early life to discover how the post-Empire experiences of both colonisers and colonised shaped Britain's destiny in the second part of the 20th century.

She is one of several celebrities taking part in Channel 4's new series Children of Empire. Diana travels to the desert state of Rajasthan to find out how and why her father, a working-class railway engineer from Doncaster, ended up working for a Maharajah as a chief mechanical engineer in charge of 3,000 staff and more than 100 locomotives.

The family's opulent lifestyle was not to last, however. Diana learns how her parents became caught up in the last days of British rule. For her parents, life would never be the same again, returning, after 20 years away, to a post-war Britain still in the grip of rationing and unemployment.

For comedian Jenny Eclair, exploring her family's imperial past is a journey in to the heart of darkness.

As a child, Jenny stumbled across gruesome photographs her father had kept of dead Chinese Communist terrorists in Malaya. Now she wants to find out why he has them and what he was doing in Malaya in the 1950s. Jenny travels to Malaysia, where she was born 46 years ago. The Malayan Emergency is one of the Empire's forgotten wars. With its rubber plantations and tin mines Malaya was the Empire's largest hard currency earner and cash-strapped post-war Britain was keen to maintain the status quo.

Part of the British military strategy was to take photographs of dead communists, to identify them and to use in propaganda. Jenny is horrified to discover that some British soldiers were involved in taking trophy photographs. As the human and financial costs of the Malayan Emergency escalated, the British changed their strategy to "The Battle for the Hearts and Minds" of the people. Was this what defeated the Communists, and was her father's role in the war strictly necessary?

David Steel was 11 years old when his family was thrust into the turbulent heart of the British Empire. More than 50 years later, David realises that his father never revealed the whole truth about what happened during their time in Kenya.

When white settlers took over Kenya's fertile land it was at the expense of the indigenous population. As a child, David was only vaguely aware of growing African protest and the emergence in the early 1950s of a secret society called Mau Mau. David meets members of this movement for the first time. While abhorring Mau Mau violence, his Presbyterian Minister father was equally infuriated by the British response.

Huge numbers of Africans were rounded up and detained without charge in camps. In a series of documents, David discovers how his father agitated behind the scenes to change British policy, but to no avail. He also finds out how information from a secret source at the heart of the Colonial Government drove his father to a dramatic public protest. His father's mission didn't stop there. He also fought to obtain the release of members of his church from the camps. Extraordinarily, David tracks down one of these former detainees.

Chris Bisson (East is East, Shameless, Coronation Street) was born in Manchester. Though his roots lie in India, his family has lost all connection with the country. Chris identifies more with the Caribbean, because his father and grandfather were born in Trinidad which Chris visits for the first time. He uncovers the journey his Indian great-grandfather took as one of the estimated two and a half million indentured labourers who were shipped around the Empire as cheap labour. In a rags-to-riches story, Chris's formidable grandfather Harry built up a successful business empire in Trinidad. However, Harry felt Trinidad's independence from Britain didn't necessarily herald a bright future and, instead, decided to gamble everything on a new life in Britain.

Actor Adrian Lester's grandfather, James, travelled from Jamaica to Britain in the 1950s. Adrian sets off for Jamaica, where his 89- year-old grandfather returned some years before. On his arrival he is shocked to find his grandfather ill in hospital and Adrian has no choice but to investigate his family history alone. He discovers why so many Jamaicans made the journey to the mother country, and why his grandfather, in particular, decided to risk everything on a new life in Britain. Adrian follows in his mother's footsteps, back to his home town of Birmingham, where she arrived in 1960 as a teenager. He meets one of her fellow pupils, who recalls how the new arrivals spoke better English than their Brummie counterparts. For his mother Britain held its own surprises. She was amazed to find that white people did manual work. Sadly, 11 days after Adrian said goodbye to his grandfather in Jamaica, James Lester passed away.

When she first arrived in Oldham from India, Shobna Gulati's mother learned English by watching Coronation Street, the show her daughter would star in 40 years later. Travelling back to Mumbai, Shobna finds out how her grandfather benefited from the end of the Raj, as Indians took over from the British. She visits the now derelict but once luxurious house her mother grew up in. It makes her realise what a shock it must have been for her mother to be faced with a house with only an outside toilet on her arrival in Britain.

Although the end of Empire brought new opportunities for Shobna's grandfather, freedom from British rule came at a terrible price for his brother. At Partition, her Hindu great-uncle found himself living on the wrong side of the border in what was now Muslim Pakistan. As tension between Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs escalated into violence, he and his family attempted to flee, but with tragic consequences. He, his wife and two of their children were among 340 passengers slaughtered on a train. For the first time one of the surviving children, now 80 years old, tells Shobna what happened that fateful day.

After such hard-earned independence, Shobna wants to find out why her father left India to work in Britain. She follows in her father's footsteps back to Oldham, to investigate how he and other doctors from the former Empire bolstered the fledgling National Health Service.

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