Lady Pamela Hicks on the real story behind Viceroy's House
25 FEBRUARY 2017 • 8:00AM
Ensconced in the sitting room of her splendid Georgian home, Lady Pamela Hicks is recalling a recent visit from Hugh Bonneville. The actor is playing her father Lord Mountbatten in the the forthcoming film Viceroy’s House, which depicts the finals months of British rule in India.
“I took him secretly into the study as I wanted to see his salute,” she says. “Another actor, who played my father years ago, was a terrible slouch – but Hugh held himself beautifully.
“He didn’t look like my father of course,” she adds. “He was chosen because of the success of Downton Abbey.”
Lady Pamela, now 87, was 17 when her father was entrusted with overseeing the transfer of power to an independent India in 1947.
Lady Pamela Hicks at home in Piccadilly
Lady Pamela Hicks at home in Piccadilly CREDIT: JEFF GILBERT
She was used to privilege: her mother, Edwina, was a glamorous heiress and her father, “Dickie”, a third cousin to the Queen and Prince Philip’s uncle. Nothing however, could have prepared her for the extravagance of life at Viceroy’s House in Delhi. With 340 rooms, marble walls and 12 indoor courtyards, the Lutyens masterpiece had come to symbolise the splendour of the Raj.
Seeing it recreated on the big screen – 70 years to the month since her her parents were sworn in as the new Viceroy and Vicereine on ornate thrones – was, says Lady Pamela, enormously enjoyable. Although she admits to nit-picking all the way through the film, which stars Gillian Anderson, Michael Gambon, Simon Callow and Om Puri.
“In the film, Viceroy’s House is swarming with pretty girls but there wasn’t a woman in sight when I was there,” she says of the 500 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh servants that pandered to the lavish lifestyle of the Raj in its dying days.
There were 25 gardeners to attend to flower arrangements alone, and there was one man who did nothing but prepare chickens
“The grandeur was alarming,” she continues. “There were twenty-five gardeners to attend to flower arrangements alone, and there was one man who did nothing but prepare chickens. The house was so vast that one had to allow ten minutes to arrive at dinner on time.
“My father, of course, was quite unimpressed because he spent his youth with his Russian aunt and uncle in much grander buildings,” she adds.
Today, Lady Pamela lives in The Grove, an elegant country house in Oxfordshire, decorated by her husband, the celebrated society interior designer David Hicks who died of lung cancer in 1998. The couple have two daughters, Edwina and India, a bridesmaid at the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and a son, the architect and designer Ashley.
As probably the only living witness to events within the Viceroy’s walls during that tumultuous time, Lady Pamela proved an indispensable source of information to director Gurinder Chadha, the filmmaker behind Bend it Like Beckham.
“We spoke for hours and she even sent one of her people to check the costumes while I was at the hairdresser. There I was, an array of fantastic scarlet uniforms laid out at my feet, with ladies under dryers either side of me,” Chadha says.
Despite her protestations to the contrary, the youngest daughter of Lord Mountbatten has a sharp memory. In one of the early scenes of the film, Lady Pamela’s mother, Edwina, is seen dismissing a racist maid who had accompanied the family from England.
500 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh servants that pandered to the lavish lifestyle of the Raj in its dying days
500 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh servants pandered to the lavish lifestyle of the Raj in its dying days CREDIT: KERRY MONTEEN/PATHE UK
“That was Mrs Hudson,” she recalls. “My mother heard her say some unpleasant things and got rid of her. That was typical of the time. From the outset my father insisted that half the guests at garden parties and lunches should be Indian. I was staggered during one of them, when I inadvertently overheard someone say: 'What are all these filthy Indians doing here?’
“My parents were quite enlightened and brought us up so that we had no prejudice.”
The idea of [Nehru] betraying my father, who was a friend, by sleeping with his wife in his own house? No. It would have made it sordid
Lady Pamela’s mother, Edwina, is played by Gillian Anderson. “I thought she did a splendid job,” she says, “although she tried so hard to get my mother’s walk right, that she ended up giving her a little hump.”
Viceroy’s House does not touch on Lady Mountbatten’s rumoured affair with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, but Lady Pamela insists, “there was no way they could have had a sexual thing at the time because they were never alone. They were permanently surrounded by police and ADCs.
“Besides, Jawaharlal was a very honourable man. The idea of betraying my father, who was a friend, by sleeping with his wife in his own house? No. It would have made it sordid.”
Despite her mother’s tireless efforts in refugee camps in the bloody aftermath of partition – as well as her work with St John’s Ambulance until she died in Borneo in 1960 aged 58 – it is her extra-marital dalliances that are most often discussed.
“The world is only interested in sex,” says Lady Pamela. “I remember, years after her death, sitting next to her former lover Bunny Phillips, who told me: 'Your mother has this reputation of being some sort of nymphomaniac, but actually she hated sex. She just couldn’t live without admiration’.
[My] mother has this reputation of being some sort of nymphomaniac, but actually she hated sex. She just couldn’t live without admiration
“Jawaharlal and my mother undoubtedly loved one another. They were soul mates,” she continues. “But my father was never jealous. He could see that the relationship made her happier and easier to be around.”
Lord Mountbatten is portrayed in the film as a well-meaning but powerless figure, whose determination to keep India united proves futile when secret Westminster politicking is revealed and partition proves inevitable.
Partition – the dividing line drawn through the nation to create India and Pakistan – brought about the largest mass migration in human history, with 14 million Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims displaced and many lives lost in the massacres that followed.
As the split dawned, Viceroy’s House and its contents were divided up between the new states – even down to the individual library books. Lord Mountbatten was asked by Nehru to stay on for ten months as governor-general of India, meaning his family witnessed every struggle.
“The staff were given the choice to stay or go,” Lady Pamela remembers. “And my father said there had to be a fair division of the items in Viceroy’s House. But when they were splitting up the orchestra, they didn’t know what to do with the cymbals. How do you divide cymbals? I think India got them in the end.”
When they were splitting up the orchestra, they didn’t know what to do with the cymbals. How do you divide cymbals? I think India got them in the end
Returning to England with her parents in June 1948, Lady Pamela mourned the colour and intensity of her adopted country. “My mother and I thought of ourselves as Indian,” she says. Distractions quickly presented themselves however, first as an invitation to attend the 1948 Olympics in London alongside the Royal family and later when her family moved to Malta, where her father resumed his Navy career. (He was eventually murdered by the IRA in 1979.)
Lady Pamela accompanied Princess Elizabeth on her 1952 Commonwealth Tour, as a lady-in-waiting. It was during the trip that the future Queen learned of her father, King George VI’s death. “I gave her a hug and a kiss, but suddenly thought, 'Hang on. She is the Queen now.’ So I did a deep curtsey.”
It is her memories of India however, that Lady Pamela holds most dear – and with the 70th anniversary of independence on August 15, her recollections of that day in New Delhi remain vivid.
“A tsunami of people filled every possible space as far as the eye could see, euphoria etched on their faces,” she says. Making her way through the surging crowds, she was encouraged by Nehru to remove her high-heeled shoes and quite literally walk on the laps and shoulders of the people. “Everyone laughed and cheered us on,” she says. “It was the most important day of my life. I had witnessed the birth of two new nations and been present while history was in the making.”
Daughter of Empire : Life as a Mountbatten by Pamela Hicks is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (£8.99). To order your copy, plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Pamela Hicks: 'I admired my mother, but I never liked her’
In a new memoir, Lady Pamela Hicks, daughter of the last Viceroy, reflects on childhood and friendship with the Royals
Lady Pamela Hicks, 83, who was with Princess Elizabeth in 1952 when she heard she was now Queen
By Peter Stanford10:00PM GMT 16 Dec 2012
We’re trying to work out if Lady Pamela Hicks is the only living witness to the behind-the-scenes dramas of Indian Independence Day in 1948, which she observed as the 18-year-old daughter of Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy. “Well, I was speaking on the telephone recently to Gandhiji’s granddaughter,” she confides. “She seems to think she saw everything, too, but she was only nine at the time. I don’t count that.”
She doesn’t pronounce her verdict in a sour or jostling-for-position way. She has simply got to an age – “Eighty-three and a half, though my daughter will insist on telling everyone I am 84” – where she tells it precisely as she sees it. Which makes her very amusing company and rather indiscreet – not quite what I was expecting of an intimate of the Royal family (The Duke of Edinburgh is her first cousin and she is a great, great granddaughter of Queen Victoria). “Oh, but the Queen has such a good sense of humour,” she protests. “And as for Prince Philip…”
That connection with the Windsors has meant that Lady Pamela – “Pammy” to friends and family – has been there, or thereabouts, at some of the key moments in 20th century history. As well as her handmaiden role at the end of empire in India, she was one of the tiny group with Princess Elizabeth in Kenya in 1952 on the morning the princess heard that her father, George VI, had died and that she was now Queen. “I’m pretty sure,” she says, running through the others in her mind, “that I’m the only one left.”
She was a bridesmaid at the royal wedding in 1947, too. There is plenty of newsreel footage and archive material to show and tell generations to come what happened in Westminster Abbey, but Lady Pamela can take us inside Buckingham Palace, too. In her new memoir, Daughter of Empire, she describes the bride remaining “wonderfully calm” as first her tiara breaks, then her pearls (a gift from her father) go missing and finally her bouquet is misplaced, eventually turning up in a cupboard. “It had been popped in to remain cool.”
There are also witty pen portraits of the assembled European royals – most of them distant relatives of Lady Pamela’s. Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands “causes a stir” by bemoaning that “everyone’s jewellery is so dirty”. “It was typical of Princess Juliana to say such a thing, for she was very down to earth.” So what does Lady Pamela think of the more relaxed style of today’s Dutch and Scandinavian royal families? “Everybody talks about how they spend their time bicycling around their capital cities,” she says, “but I can tell you that the Stockholm palace is infinitely bigger than Buckingham Palace, and they still have plenty of flunkeys.”
Lady Pamela’s own domestic set-up is more modest. She lives in a beautiful manor house in the south Oxfordshire countryside. The influence of David Hicks is all about us. A designer who made his name in the Swinging Sixties, he and Lady Pamela married at the start of that decade – “an unorthodox match”, she writes in her memoir, but a happy one right up to his death in 1998. “I came from this ordinary naval family,” she recalls, for once employing a hefty dose of poetic licence, “and as a result of my marriage I’ve now spent 50 years surrounded by dotty creative people.” Perhaps that accounts for the gentle note of irreverence in her voice – that and the slight throatiness that she says is the result of having a “permanent frog”.
As well as David’s vibrant interiors, and the avenues of trees that carry my eye out of the floor-to-ceiling windows to outdoor rooms, Lady Pamela also has work by her son, the designer Ashley Hicks, to admire and puzzle over. “Did you notice that mound of earth with hands and feet sticking out of it as you drove in?” she asks. “He tells me it is a giant trying to get out of the earth.”
She still talks about her late husband as if he is in the next room, or down the corridor lovingly restoring the dining-room panels that were originally painted in the late 1930s for her wealthy heiress mother, Edwina, by Rex Whistler. There have been biographies of David Hicks, including one, she recounts with horror, “which described me as having led a very sheltered life in the countryside before my marriage. That is why I felt obliged to mention in my book that I had 10 proposals of marriage before I met David.”
Ten sounds like an awful lot, I suggest. “It is what happens when you are young. They weren’t all serious.” She makes a proposal sound rather like asking someone out on a date. “Even when they were serious, I didn’t want to go and live in the middle of a civil war.”
She is referring to the only suitor she names in the memoir – “There were more in my first draft, but India [her daughter, the former model and now Bahamas-based businesswoman] told me it was toe-curling.” George Arida is described in the book as “a dashing young Lebanese man” who lived in Beirut – hence the not entirely historically accurate reference to civil war. But today she chooses to call him “the man in black”. As in the Milk Tray adverts, scaling castle ramparts to bring her a box of chocolates? “Oh, no,” she giggles naughtily, clearly taken by the idea. “I mean more like that American singer. You know the one.” She pauses for a moment, but her memory is crystal clear. “Johnny Cash.”
If her own marriage was blessed, Lady Pamela writes candidly about the strains on her parents’ union. “My mother had at least 18 lovers,” she says as if describing pairs of shoes, “but my father, to my knowledge, only had one other. The saving grace was that he wasn’t jealous.”
Among Edwina Mountbatten’s reported love affairs was one with “Panditji” Nehru, the first Indian Prime Minister, which is said to have played out while her husband was bringing an end to British rule. While accepting that the two were very close, Lady Pamela disagrees with those biographers who claim that a physical relationship took place between the two. She does so not to protect her mother’s reputation, but because she doubts they ever had the opportunity to be alone, with so many servants and officials always in attendance.
“I never liked her,” she says unflinchingly of her mother. “She had no idea of how to play with children, unlike my father. She was a woman who could never have a personal conversation with you, and who needed constant flattery. If she didn’t have that, she became lonely and miserable.
“As a child, I admired her for her glamour. Then when we were in India, and I saw the work she did there, especially with Japanese prisoners of war, that admiration grew.”
Her mother died in 1960 at the age of 58, but Lady Pamela’s staunch loyalty belongs to her father. “He could be so naive. To her dying day, he was always worrying that Mummy would divorce him. 'I’ll have to move out to the flat above the garage,’ he’d say to us. But although she said she had no time for royalty, and that she was a true socialist, Mummy would never have left him. Try keeping her away from a party at Buckingham Palace.”
Lady Pamela and her sister [who became Countess Mountbatten after their father was murdered by the IRA in 1979] attended the wedding of William and Kate – “they were kind enough to invite us” – but her days playing any part in the royal set-up are over, she says. “There comes a moment, when you have as large a family as the Queen does, when you just have to have a cull and cut out all the people over 80.”
Which should leave her more time to write. “Oh, no. Not after the agony of this book [her second volume of memoirs]. I’ve never been a real writer. As a young woman I once submitted an article to The Times, about my pet mongoose, and got a rejection letter by return of post.”
'Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten’ by Pamela Hicks (W&N) is available from Telegraph Books at £13.99 + £1.35 p&p. Call 0844 871 1515 or go to books.telegraph.co.uk