Celebs trace ancestors steps and ask: What did they do in the war?

Celebs trace ancestors steps and ask: What did they do in the war?
Helena Bonham Carter in My Grandparents War, on Channel 4

A number of celebs dig deep into their family’s lives during WWII for a new TV series, writes Georgia Humphreys

Chances are you’ll have heard about Helena Bonham Carter’s star turn in The Crown. In the third series of the hugely popular Netflix drama the eccentric Londoner, 53, plays Princess Margaret. But The Crown isn’t her only big TV project airing this month.

The other, a documentary series My Grandparents’ War is a more personal show. To commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the start of World War Two, Channel 4 sent four actors off around the world in order to explore their grandparents’ extraordinary wartime stories.

Bonham Carter’s episode is the first of four, followed by Mark Rylance, Kristin Scott Thomas and Carey Mulligan.

While none of her grandparents fought in any battles, we learn both sets — one in France, one in England — saved countless lives. They were unconventional war heroes; her maternal grandfather Eduardo Propper de Callejon, a Spanish diplomat, defied his government’s orders and helped Jewish people escape the Holocaust as the Nazis invaded France.

Meanwhile, Lady Violet Bonham Carter — her paternal grandmother, who was a mother of four and liberal politician — took her own stand against anti-Semitism, while also volunteering as an air raid warden and campaigning for women’s rights.

“My family is extraordinary,” effuses Bonham Carter, who has two children, Billy and Nell, with director Tim Burton (they split in 2014 after 13 years together).

And I was born too late and they died too soon. So, for me, it was like I met them properly, and had a conversation with them.

It’s well known that Bonham Carter has other fascinating relatives; her great-grandfather — HH Asquith — was the British prime minister at the start of the First World War.

One person who we get to meet is her mother Elena, a psychotherapist who’s known as Bubbles.

“All the women in our family never really do stop talking, and I’ve got hours of Bubbles, and she is actually in the documentary,” says the star.

She continues passionately: “Also, what struck me watching that, is that there is all this silence around trauma, so it needs time for people to make sense of it. We were lucky — it’s the time for people to speak and for us to find out.”

In one of the other episodes we hear how Kristin Scott Thomas’s grandfather William survived some of the most devastating battles, from Dunkirk to D-Day, as a Commanding officer in the Royal Navy. She also learns about the horrors he endured on board Russian Arctic convoys.

Kristin Scott Thomas
Kristin Scott Thomas

Discussing what she learnt from making the show, Scott Thomas, 60, notes: “You realise that you just don’t know how you’re going to behave in situations of fear and stress and life and death situations.

Everybody has a different way of dealing with it, and I have no idea what mine would be and I have no idea what anyone’s here would be.

Making the film also gave the Cornwall-born actress — whose father and stepfather both died flying planes as Royal Navy pilots — a “new feeling of respect, or understanding of a certain way of seeing the world”.

“And that sense of duty, which is something that really was driven home by doing this,” The English Patient star elaborates. “Serving the country is something that was really a big shock to me. I’ve known about it in principle, but this really made me understand what that actually meant.”

- My Grandparents War starts on Channel 4 next Wednesday, November 27

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