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.

  • kayren milne (nee noble)

    Thought this was a really thought provoking programme. So thought provoking I got a telephone call tonight from my mother who told me we are related to Margaret (nee Noble) and Tommy Darling. Margaret Darling was my Fathers Auntie on his paternal side.
    I am currently doing my family tree on the Nobles and this is some revelation to add to an otherwise ordinary family story.
    Would be really nice to meet Alan and discuss any other research done and compare notes.

  • mark f

    If you ask me, they saved the best to last. It made a pleasent change to focus on just one person, It left me wondering how much he told or wanted to tell his Mother. Excellent programme.

    Mark

  • http://www.rankine-scott.me.uk Niall

    I caught a repeat of this and was intrigued, while I enjoyed the program what really caught my eye were the names Darling and Noble in Dundee.
    I’m completely addicted to Family History and I have recently been tracing a distant relation Thomas Darling b 1813 Dalkeith who moved to Aberdeen. He married a Rachel Noble of Peebles in Dalkeith in 1841. They lived their lives out in Aberdeen but their son Thomas moved to Dundee bet 1871 and 1881. Thomas and his wife Jane Gillespie had 8 children, I have managed to track 4 of the children but I woder if there is any connection between my Darlings and Alans’s mother’s family.
    BTW My lot also had connections to Inverness and one of Thomas’s sons, Erskine Gillespie Darling, was also a military man and also a bit of a mystery. In his attestation for Engineers Defence Force 18 May 1921 he gave previous service as 042842 RAOC. Then in his attestation on 5 Sep 1914 he gave previous service as ‘Robert’s Horse time exp’.
    So what on earth was an engineer doing in a volunteer cavalry regiment in the Boer war?

    Cheers
    Niall

  • Judith Wilkinson

    Very interesting program. My father, John (Peter) Rowland Rutty, had gone to Malaya to work on a rubber plantation at Kuantan, before the war.When war broke out he joined the British army and was a Sergeant Major in the 4th battalion of the Federated Malay States Volunteer force. He was captured by the Japanese and was a POW in Changi and I have some history of him there. After surviving the POW camp he returned to his family in Australia and met and married my mother before returning to the plantation. He was killed by communist guerillas near Kuantan, in 1948 on the rubber plantation where he lived. I was only a baby, and my mother was pregnant with my sister. I have been researching his life with some success, but would love to know how to find his death certificate and coroner’s report. He was born in Australia but a ‘British subject by birth. I wonder if Alan Cumming might know the places to find that information in Malaysia? Cheers Judy

  • http://www.family-history-reports.cleanlinesonline.co.uk Tony Featherstone

    The new series is even better, and we have a full 10 episodes. Best so far is J K Rowling

  • Alex Black

    During the programme they feature on the picture taken in 1941 of the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders Sergeants mess, the camera zooms in to Tom Darling and standing next to him is my Dad, Bill Black!!!
    I have the same photo in my hallway and must have looked at Tom many times, not knowing who he was, thank you BBC, an excellent episode.