I was sceptical about Long Lost Family. The programme began in 2011 and I missed most of the first two series. I dipped in and out a little because I thought I ought to. I was chair of an adoption agency and I knew that each time the programme went out there was a spike in calls to the agency from people wanting to search for birth relatives.
I was adopted in 1961 when I was six months old. I had been born to a single Catholic mother who decided that it wasn’t possible to keep me and that I would have a better life elsewhere. I can’t remember not knowing that I was adopted when I was growing up. But I didn’t start to trace my birth parents until I was in my late twenties.
My search started during a conversation with a friend who was an adoption social worker. Over the course of a single day, my curiosity took hold in a way it never had before. It didn’t leave me but I had other things to contend with and I didn’t act on it until after my first partner died when I was 34. It’s not unusual for the desire to search to be triggered or reinvigorated by a major life event, especially bereavement. And after his death, I had a stronger desire than ever before to know who I was and where I came from.
Over the course of the next ten years, I found both my birth parents. I traced my mother first and we were in contact for nearly four years but then, pretty abruptly, the contact stopped. I later traced my father and was in touch with him on and off for around six years but then it petered out.
By the time Long Lost Family started in 2011, I was barely in touch with either birth parent. I was estranged from my adoptive mother too. The only one of my four parents I spoke to regularly was my adoptive father. I had reached a place in life where I had pretty much given up on all four of them and certainly my birth parents. Long Lost Family was about something which I thought I had done. Tracing my birth parents hadn’t been a disaster but it hadn’t resulted in deep and sustained relationships either. I was glad I’d done it, disappointed it hadn’t brought more but resigned to the fact that it wasn’t going to.
It would be wrong to say that the effect of searching for my birth parents was ephemeral. I changed my surname after meeting my birth mother and my decision to come to live in Scotland was inextricably bound up with my birth roots. But I didn’t get to know either of them deeply. The attachment that had been broken by my adoption hadn't been restored. And yet to this day, the two photos by the side of my bed are of me with each of them.
So my scepticism about Long Lost Family was a product of my own experience. I had done it and I had the t-shirts. It had helped me make sense of things but, fundamentally, it hadn’t changed anything. I bore some sadness, even harboured some grudges. Though I didn’t think it would especially upset me, I didn’t want to be reminded of things either.
I worried too about such searches being presented as entertainment, even though I knew Nicky Campbell was adopted and the programme seemed well intentioned. Perhaps what concerned me most was that it might suggest that searches for long lost relatives always ended happily and that it resolved things which to me had been unresolvable. But during series three in 2013, almost inadvertently, the programme began to reel me in. Now it has reached its sixth series and I’m both an addict and a convert.
I’m an addict because the programme speaks to me. The people whose stories it features talk of feelings that I’ve had; of loss, separation, hurt and regret. The stories never fail to make me cry. Yet the tears are mostly a comfort because they keep me in touch with something that matters. They don’t change my story but they do validate it. They are not my story but many of the fragments are the same. Yes, I do wallow a little but I’ve never watched the programme with anyone else. It’s a private view.
I’m a convert because Nicky and his co-host Davina McCall do an extraordinary job and I can only assume they are supported by a great team. They are in one sense the stars of the show and yet they avoid being so. Of course, it’s television, it’s edited and there’s evocative background music. But they bring a humanity and an empathy which can only come from knowing what it is like to be separated or estranged from family members.
The programme also avoids the pitfall of being contrived because it always strives to show not tell. The stories are, in the best sense of an overused word, authentic. And even though it’s never fully articulated, I think there’s a message beyond the stories too. It’s a message about the value of identity and family. Of belonging and love. We can't always have those things but they are worth searching for.
I’m also a convert because as the series have gone on, they haven’t shied away from showing that the journeys are painful and the outcomes aren’t always what people might have hoped for. Nowhere was this more powerfully demonstrated than in a seventh series in which Nicky and Davina returned to participants to find out what happened next. Sometimes things had worked out but sometimes they hadn’t. If there is one thing I would like more of, it is this, though I recognise it must be challenging to do.
‘Home is where one starts from’, wrote T. S. Elliot in East Coker. It is a simple but undeniable truth. And I think that, just as I sought to, the people featured in the programme are trying to find home. Their journeys are compelling viewing and their stories are worthy of an audience. There are many more like them which will never reach our screens. And it's because that message shines through that Long Lost Family is much more than entertainment.