Actor Rupert Penry-Jones is associated with playing quintessentially English heroes, men such as MI5 agent Adam Carter in Spooks. However, much of Rupert’s own family history lies not in Europe, but in India, where his mother was born to English parents.
Moreover, Rupert suspects that he might be partly Indian, although this may be just a family story. “I don’t know, I really should know,” he says at the start of his episode of Who Do You Think You Are? To learn more, Rupert first visits his mother, the actress Angela Thorne. Born in 1939 in Karachi, now in Pakistan but then part of British India, she has vivid memories of the last days of the Raj when, as a little girl, elephants carried the luggage as her family headed out to “camp at the foot of the Himalayas for two weeks”.
Rupert also asks about his grandfather, William Thorne, a doctor. He was a man who routinely “fobbed off” personal questions, yet it’s clear he played an important role at Monte Cassino, a notoriously brutal battle in the Allied advance through Italy during the Second World War. William would later be awarded the OBE in honour of his time on the Italian front.
At The National Archives in Kew, Rupert sees papers relating to his grandfather’s war service. In charge of an Indian Army Field Ambulance Unit at Cassino, William and his men had to deal with 1,500 casualties over five days in a place where access to the front line was sometimes via paths so narrow that you couldn’t even use a mule to bring out the wounded.
After visiting Italy to see the scene of the battle for himself, Rupert next skips back another two generations to find out about his 2x great grandparents, Theophilus Thorne and Sarah Jane Todd. At the British Library, he meets historian Dr Rosie Llewellyn-Jones and discovers that Theophilus was a “self-made man who did very well for himself”.
Having joined the army as a private, Theophilus left for India and rose through the ranks to become an officer and a key figure in organising state camps, lavish displays of pageantry designed to reinforce British power. The peak of this career was the Coronation Durbar of 1911, held to celebrate the coronation of George V on a site that covered 25 square miles near Delhi.
Rupert’s connections with the subcontinent don’t end here. Sarah Jane Todd was descended from a military family. Her maternal grandfather, Thomas Johnstone, was a sergeant major the First Madras Fusiliers, part of the East India Company’s private army. Flying to India and the city of Allahabad, Rupert sees copies of letters that Thomas wrote to his wife, Louisa.
They offer a fascinating snapshot of life for Europeans at the time of the Indian Rebellion in 1857, a bloody attempt to free the country from British rule. While Thomas talks about “burning a village now and then just for sport”, it’s also abundantly clear that he misses his wife and children.
The last letter Rupert sees is one of condolence, speaking of regret that a popular NCO has died of cholera. For Rupert, it all builds into a picture of a “good man” whose more questionable actions can in great part be explained by coming from a “blinkered” world.
There’s one last mystery still to solve, the question of whether Rupert is partly Indian. At All Saint’s Church in Nagpur, central India, Rupert sees records that confirm Louisa was an ‘Indo-Britain’. Going back another generation, he learns that her parents were Samuel Collum and Elizabeth, who may have been Indian or Anglo-Indian. It’s a reminder that Europeans working for the East India Company were once encouraged to marry local women.
Going back further proves impossible, but Rupert’s delighted by what he’s found. “Clearly I’m not Indian, I’m very European-looking,” he says, “but I’m pleased there’s more than just the blood of Great Britain in me, absolutely.”