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Documentary series that examines the dismantlement of the British Empire and the effects of its legacy through the family stories of various British celebrities, each a 'child of the Empire'

About the Show

Documentary series that examines the dismantlement of the British Empire and the effects of its legacy through the family stories of various British celebrities, each a 'child of the Empire'

Series 1 Summary

The family stories of Diana Rigg, Shobna Gulati, David Steel, Chris Bisson, Jenny Eclair and Adrian Lester offer extraordinary insights into the diversity of Empire, and reveal how the post-Empire experiences of both colonisers and colonised shaped Britain's destiny in the second part of the 20th century.

  • Dame Diana Rigg

    Episode 1 - Dame Diana Rigg

    The opening programme of the series follows the actress Dame Diana Rigg and her early childhood in India in the final days of the British Raj. 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 over a hundred locomotives.

    The family's opulent lifestyle was not to last and Diana finds out how her parents became caught up in the last days of the Empire in India. For her parents, life would never be the same again, as they returned after 20 years to a post-war Britain still in the grip of rationing and unemployment.

  • Shobna Gulati

    Episode 2 - Shobna Gulati

    Actress Shobna Gulati, star of Coronation Street, travels back to Mumbai to visit her parents' birthplace and find 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 in which her mother grew up, and realises 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.

    After such hard-earned independence, Shobna wants to find out why her father left India to work in the mother country. 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.

  • Lord David Steel

    Episode 3 - Sir David Steel

    David Steel was 11 years old when his family lived in the turbulent heart of the British Empire in Kenya. More than 50 years on, 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.

    David discovers how his father agitated behind the scenes to change British policy, but to no avail. His father 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

    Episode 4 - Chris Bisson

    Actor Chris Bisson, best known for his roles in East Is East , Shameless and Coronation Street , was born in Manchester, but his roots lie in India. However, over time his family has lost all connection with the country.

    Chris identifies more with the Caribbean, because his father and grandfather were born in Trinidad. Here, 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.

  • Jenny Eclair

    Episode 5 - Jenny Eclair

    For comedian Jenny Eclair, exploring her family's imperial past is a journey into 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, the country 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. To what extent did this help defeat the communists - and was her father's role in the war strictly necessary?

  • Adrian Lester

    Episode 6 - Adrian Lester

    Actor Adrian Lester's grandfather James travelled from the West Indies to Britain in the 1950s. In this programme, Adrian sets off for Jamaica where his 89-year-old grandfather returned some years before.

    On his arrival Adrian is shocked to find his grandfather ill in hospital and 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 teenage girl. 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.

Empire's Children synopsis

Documentary series that examines the dismantlement of the British Empire and the effects of its legacy through the family stories of various British celebrities, each a 'child of the Empire'

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