Actress's fight to expose family secrets

Families, as poet Philip Larkin so provocatively put it, can f*** you up.

Steven Russell

Families, as poet Philip Larkin so provocatively put it, can f*** you up. Actress Diana Quick hasn't quite used those words, but her family had secrets and silences that are only now being understood. Steven Russell reports

DIANA Quick is a 1960s Oxford undergraduate with barely a care in the world - there in the city of dreaming spires to study literature but devoting much of her energy to her true passion: acting. She lives in the moment and has fun. One day a tutor sits her down and reveals her dentist father has died from a heart attack at the age of 50. The idyll is shattered.

After an untroubled childhood that left her “untouched by the usual privations and losses that come to families”, and thus unprepared to deal with crises, the questions soon start bubbling to the surface following this first-ever seismic blow. Why, for instance, was there a full requiem mass for a man who had never once mentioned he was a Roman Catholic?

Then there was the bizarre visit a decade earlier to the hospital bed of Grandfather Quick, ill at the age of 66. He'd lived in England only three years, after spending his life practising medicine and dentistry in India. Fearing that time was running out, he'd asked to talk to Diana and older sister Julie - but not their two brothers. It was only the second time they'd met him, and their own dad, Leonard, didn't seem to be on friendly terms with his father.

Grandfather, tucked up under a starched white sheet, turned his head and advised the sisters: “Always do as your parents tell you, and be sure you marry a pure-blood Englishman.” Odd . . . but, aged nine, little Diana didn't think much of it.

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However, following the loss of her dad and as her acting career took off, questions like these kept returning.

One key occasion came while working on the classic TV serial Brideshead Revisited about 30 years ago. As Lady Julia Flyte, Diana takes the decision to bring a priest to the deathbed of her father, Lord Marchmain, so he might be reconciled with the Roman Catholic faith he'd abandoned half a lifetime before.

The actress would reflect many years later: “This of course set up a strange echo for me, and as Laurence Olivier looked uncannily like a handsome version of the men in my family, with the same domed forehead and silver hair brushed back, a strong, somewhat broad nose and high cheekbones, art was clearly imitating life.”

It all coincided with Diana hitting her early 30s, thinking about the next stage of her career, and concluding it was “time to start being myself”. Trouble was, “I didn't know who I was.” Not quite posh and not quite working class - and not quite like the family's middle-class friends.

Then, in the mid-1990s, she was in the West End with Kindertransport - the story of children escaping Nazi Germany for a new life in Britain. Diana's fugitive character became a middle-class, middle-aged Englishwoman: rejecting her mother years later because the pain of reopening old wounds is too great, but in the process ruining any chance of healing herself.

Diana thought about her father a great deal during this period: raised in India and sent away to school in the Himalayas, he'd come to England at 17 to train as a dentist. He never went back to his homeland, and seemed to have precious little to do with his family there. What was that all about?

And why, looking back at her dramatic roles, had she played so many exotic characters. The hub of the matter was: did she feel so comfortable playing the outsider because of some unconscious aspect of her own family history?

So began a search for the truth that stretched across a decade or so, involved trips to Pakistan and India to walk in the footsteps of her ancestors, and has resulted in the publication of Diana's book A Tug on the Thread - From the British Raj to the British Stage: A Family Memoir.

It was hard graft, with hours spent trawling through microfilms at the India Office in London. The archives hold the records of colonial bodies such as the East India Company. Often with few leads to go on, the experience was frequently like searching for a needle in a haystack and regularly took her up cul-de-sacs. Research also had to fitted in with Diana's acting career.

The result was worth waiting for: a moving account that tells of the rigours of life as part of the British Empire, people kept in their place by societal restrictions, a dramatic escape from death during uprising, and family unhappiness - too much, in 300 pages, to do justice to here, sadly. Also woven into the fabric are details about the author's own life and career.

The story was that the Quicks hailed from Devon or Cornwall and that one member - Christopher, Diana's great-grandfather - had gone out to India in the army, probably in 1870.

There, far down the pecking order, he was unlikely to find a white bride - there were too few of them around. So son Bertie, Diana's grandfather, was the child of a mixed-race wife.

Anyone known to have even well-diluted native blood in their veins risked being pigeon-holed as “country-born” or having a “touch of the tar-brush” about them.

For Bertie, being ranked a second-class would grate throughout. When he pursued a medical career, for instance, he was obliged to join the Sub-Medical Department of the Indian Army, not the pukka medical department - the word “sub” the giveaway.

He became a sub-assistant surgeon - the product of education modelled on the English public school system and its ethos of fair play and sportsmanship - yet was still “balancing on the edge of what was acceptable”.

Clever but not allowed to sit at society's top tables, Dr Bertie Quick, says Diana, was aggravated, “and this feeling was to inform all his actions and influence for ever the lives of his children. When, finally, I met him in England he was still angry and frustrated, and it was that, without any acknowledgement from the adults around me, which I picked up on”.

Bertie was left a widower with a four-year-old son (Leonard) and a daughter of two - Esme.

He later married Nora. She was by all accounts controlling, jealous and poisonous, made Bertie convert to Catholicism, and packed the children off to boarding school.

Bertie carved out a niche for himself as a well-off dentist. At 17, Leonard was sent to England - to study dentistry at Guy's Hospital, although he'd have preferred classics or maths at Cambridge. Bertie's dream was that his son would in time return to India, to all intents and purposes an Englishman, and the two would practise together. Esme, meanwhile, was sent to an Eastbourne convent school.

But there was a big row between father and son that wrecked these ambitions. Over the years Diana was frustrated because no-one would explain what had happened.

Then, with the actress deep in research for her book, her mother produced a big blue chocolate box containing her father's papers. There was his five-year diary started in 1932 as he quit school for England and nearly 100 letters from Leonard to his beloved “Freckles”. They blew away the fog.

Leonard had had a miserable time as his teenage life was remote-controlled from India. After a spell in Croydon he was sent to live with his step-mother's devout (and tightly-supervisory) sister in Dartford. Esme, leaving school and nurturing dreams of going into medicine, was instead sorted out with a hairdressing apprenticeship.

The bright spot was amateur dramatics and meeting Joan, Esme's boss. With two salons of her own and a nippy sports car, she was way out of his league, but feelings blossomed nonetheless. Joan's father was a self-made builder. The family was easy going and accepting in a way that contrasted with Leonard's colder domestic background.

His step-mother's sister evidently did not approve of this burgeoning relationship and reported back. Diana believes letters from India, pleading cash troubles and later threatening to cut him off completely, were simply attempts to bully her dad into forgetting about love and knuckling down - so he could return in glory and work with his father.

Letters show Leonard on a rollercoaster - emotionally dependent on his beloved, and under pressure from his father and step-mother. Something had to give and, by early 1937, following bitter rows, he was cast off by his family. Desperate, he was kept afloat by a bursary, loans from friends, and the largesse of Joan's family.

Luckily, he sailed through his finals. In June, 1940, he and Joan married in a Roman Catholic ceremony. Leonard enlisted in the Dental Corps as a major. Diana's older brother and sister were born during the war, and she followed nine months and four days after his return to civilian life in 1946.

Catholicism was not a significant feature of life for the children of the once-devout Leonard, and he effectively wrote the Indian Quicks out of his history.

“It is as if denying their very existence he could deny their power to hurt him. And that is what he continued to do, more or less, for the rest of his life,” concludes Diana.

A Tug on the Thread is published by Virago at �17.99

IF it had been my father, I'd have wept buckets upon opening that blue chocolate box and discovering just what a forlorn time he'd had as a teenager in England. How did Diana Quick react?

“I did get very teary, sometimes,” she tells ealife over coffee and courgette-and-pineapple cake at the caf� in Snape Maltings. “Actually, the thing that made me really cry was not so much that - that was sad and I did feel really sorry for this lonely student - what really pushed me over the edge was the way he expressed it in his love letters; and the things he said about 'You don't know how much you've changed me. I owe everything to you.'

“What really upset me, almost more than anything else, was when I was told that my grandfather had said 'When I die, I want to take Leonard with me' - the idea that at the end of his life he still had this great tenderness for the son he'd hardly seen and who was absolutely estranged . . . I thought 'How terrible.'”

Incredibly moving, too, was something Diana's mum said to her many years later: that she chose to marry Leonard “because he was such a decent fellow, but that she did not really come to fall in love with him until after they were married”.

“I think that not uncommon, and not that uncommon when there's a war looming. I think there were a lot of people who thought 'This is a decent person. I might not be coming back form this conflict.' I think now we've all been raised on romantic notions of love and marriage. I remember my mother used to say to me 'It's much more important that you're friends, because friendship lasts.”

I wonder what her brothers and sister think about family matters being aired in public. Clive and Richard, for instance, seem to have found in Leonard echoes of his relationship with his own father: remote, undemonstrative, and quick to anger if they failed to achieve the desired standards. Diana, in comparison, remembers him as tender, tactile and interested in what she was doing.

“I don't know what my family will think. They're all busy reading it now. For all of us, our experience of our father was very different from each other. Even my sister's was different than mine.

“She was saying last weekend he wasn't really that interested in her hobbies. She had quite a long commute to school and he used to pick her up at the station and drive home from the surgery in winter. It must have been a good 20 minutes in the car and she said they'd hardly ever talk, whereas my memories of him are of being very personable. Maybe it was just that we had common interests.”

A companion on some of the memorable research trips east was Mary, Diana's daughter with the actor Bill Nighy. Does Diana think her upbringing has influenced they way she's raised her own child?

“Yes. Consciously. To not be mystifying. To not say 'I'll tell you about that later.' You try to say things as they're appropriate, don't you?”

Now that the Quick family mystery is explained, how does she feel?

“I don't think it's made me feel less an outsider, because I think by temperament and by choice of job one is always going to be kind of looking in, but I probably have more a sense of myself. I hope I'm going to be less prone to fantasy - the fantasy that I have these exotic roots somewhere!”

Quick story

Diana Quick was born in Kent in 1946

She has a home in London and, since 1981, in Suffolk

Theatre credits include After Mrs Rochester, Hamlet, Troilus and Cressida, The Woman Destroyed

TV credits include Kingdom, Midsomer Murders, Poirot, Inspector Morse, Brideshead Revisited

Films include Ordeal by Innocence, The Big Sleep, The Duellists