My Grandparent’s War: Toby Jones, review: the astonishing family secrets kept tumbling out

Toby Jones at Boulogne Pier in northern France, where his grandmother was rescued in 1942 - Channel 4
Toby Jones at Boulogne Pier in northern France, where his grandmother was rescued in 1942 - Channel 4

It is reductive to see My Grandparent’s War (Channel 4) as Who Do You Think You Are? in puttees and a pith helmet. But when today’s stars go in search of yesteryear’s heroes and heroines, there is certainly much more khaki on show than tinsel. So it was a pleasure, not least to Toby Jones himself, to find that his grandmother’s Second World War story contained just as many surprises as his grandfather’s.

Doreen Heslewood, known to one and all as Dorki, was 21 when she joined the Entertainments National Service Association, and was soon entertaining the troops in northern France. She watched the hypnotic impact of Gracie Fields as she came onstage and said, “Hello, boys”, and she was performing only hours before the Germans approached.

ENSA, Jones was informed, had the finest thespian codeword for just such an emergency: Hamlet. Overnight the company dashed 150 miles to Boulogne whence she was evacuated. Two weeks later she married Jones’s grandfather, Reggie, and Jones’s mother was promptly on the way.

Jones always knew her as a theatre animal – it even says “resting actress” on her gravestone. But she seemed to have taken a vow of silence never to talk about any of this with her three daughters. “Neither I nor anyone in my family seems to know this story,” he said, wearing the amused look of someone who’s been conned as secret upon secret emerged.

The silence of his grandfather was easier to compute. A brewer who was made an officer on signing up with the artillery, he was part of the Indian Army which inflicted the first major defeat on the Japanese at the Battle of Imphal. On the boat home, they were all instructed not to discuss what they’d been through. And suffering, like so many contemporaries, from what we know now was PTSD, he didn’t.

The jigsaw pieces came together from an amazing array of documentary sources. Dorki even had cameos in a couple of books, while Jones finally discovered from his grandfather’s own testimony how he had a bullet wound near his mouth (friendly fire, nervous sentry).

The only documents that didn’t surface were the hundreds of love letters Reggie wrote home to Dorki, which were interred in their joint grave. “Who would want them?” mused his aunt. “The makers of this programme?” said Jones. Even without them, this was an eye-popping story.