News / The final episode of Who Do You Think You Are? – Alan Cumming

The final episode of Who Do You Think You Are? – Alan Cumming

Actor Alan Cumming featured in the final episode of Who Do You Think You Are? last night. Alan’s maternal grandfather, Thomas Darling, had always been a bit of a mystery, a ‘black hole’ in Alan’s family history. The family story was that Thomas had died in a shooting accident but Alan had heard a rumour that his death wasn’t an accident at all. Alan embarked on a journey to discover the truth.

Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming

Alan was born in Scotland 1965. Growing up he was close to his mother Mary Darling and her mother Margaret Noble. Alan started his journey by visiting his mother in Dundee to find out what she knew.

Tom Darling was Mary’s father, Alan’s grandfather. Alan found out that he left home and joined the army when he was 17. Tom was stationed in Inverness where he met and married Margaret. Tom then went to France and Burma as a courier. Alan read Tom’s service record which described him as ‘an excellent type’.

Alan travelled to Edinburgh to find out more about his grandfather’s early military career. Tom worked as a cook and was described as a ‘reliable worker’, another testament to his excellent service.

When Tom was 24 he served as a despatch rider in the army in France, acting as a crucial line of communication between battalion headquarters and the front line. He was awarded a military medal in 1940 for his great courage and the fact that he showed no regard for his own personal safety.

Alan travelled to France to find out exactly what his grandfather did to win the medal.

Alan read Tom’s battalion report which described the many journeys he made on his motorbike along a ‘fire-swept’ road. This road had no cover and Tom risked his life repeatedly among the mortar and machine gun fire to get the message to the battalion headquarters.

Tom was eventually evacuated from Dunkirk, leaving behind many comrades who were either trapped or dead. Alan thought that this experience must have psychologically damaged his grandfather.

Back in London, Alan looked for clues about what happened to Tom when he returned from France. Tom served in times when post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t recognised, let alone treated, and Tom had no real chance to recover. Two years after returning from France, Tom was sent to India where in 1944 he fought against the Japanese army in a fierce battle.

Alan read Tom’s medical history and found out that Tom was admitted to hospital for a gunshot wound after this battle. Tom was ill for many months, and his medical history didn’t make it clear what had actually happened to him. Alan thought it was possible that Tom was admitted to a psychiatric ward during this time, as it was common for these records to be deliberately destroyed. There was such a stigma attached to mental illness at this time that it was covered up wherever possible.

Alan’s next stop was to visit Bristol to meet David, a soldier who fought with his grandfather in 1944. David said that the soldiers all looked up to Tom as a kind of mentor. David described Tom as big, strong, tough and someone you didn’t argue with. David said he genuinely respected Tom.

In 1945 Tom returned to Britain from India to visit his wife and children. They didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the last time they ever saw him.

Tom left the army in 1949 then joined the police force in Malaya, now Malaysia. Alan learned that his grandparents were recorded as ‘separated’ at this time and felt that this could have been the reason that Tom decided to go to Malaya. Tom sent money home to the family but didn’t visit them again.

Within seven months of being in Malaya, 35 year old Tom died in 1951. No records of his death existed in Britain so Alan travelled to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia to find out once and for all how he died. The official record of Tom’s death from the Malaysian National Archives stated that Tom died from a gunshot wound to head. Alan wanted to know if it was suicide or murder.

Alan travelled to Cha’ah, south of Kuala Lumpur, for more answers. He spoke to Roy, a police officer in Malaya at the same time as Tom. Roy wasn’t there when Tom died but he told Alan the story he’d heard – that Tom died during a game of Russian roulette. Roy believed that Tom wouldn’t have deliberately killed himself and that either he got careless or ran out of luck.

This revelation deeply shocked Alan and he questioned Tom’s state of mind to play Russian roulette on what Roy described as a regular basis.

Alan then spoke to two brothers who had been children when Tom lived in Malaya. They said the people loved Tom very much and that their father, Tom’s friend, named a park and a road in Cha’ah after him: ‘Darling Walk’. The brothers took Alan to see this road and to the place where Tom played Russian roulette the day he died.

A police telegram confirmed that Tom died during a game of Russian roulette. The letter the police sent to Tom’s wife described his death as a terrible accident. She never knew what really killed him, and Alan finally located the source of the family legend that Tom’s death was a shooting accident.