I caught a few minutes of the lovely Davina McCall on ITV yesterday afternoon talking about the new series of Long Lost Family returned tonight to ITV.
I really like Davina. I love her way with people. Whether she’s enthusiastically encouraging kids before they go on the Got To Dance stage or carefully managing the intricacies of a mother and child’s long-awaited reunion, she seems to pick up very quickly on the emotional needs of the people around her, handling them with a deft and gentle hand. I met a journalist last year who knows Davina well and I was thrilled to hear that she’s just as ace off screen as she is on. Which makes me glad, because Long Lost Family is one of those shows that really plays on my mind.
It’s more than Emotion Porn as I once heard it referred to. That phrase would go on to have a hefty impact on a friend of mine, but I’ll come to him in a sec.
Long Lost Family might well be emotion porn to some… a quick fix with a box of tissues followed by a brew and a biccy and a fleeting sense of relief that – thank goodness – we don’t all have such achingly difficult family histories to bear. I get it. I’ve just sat glued to the telly too, utterly absorbed in the stories unfolding of parents, children and siblings. Separated. Affected. Uncertain. But whilst we viewers are getting our fix in an hour or so of TV, these moments we’re seeing are the culmination of years… decades… lifetimes in many cases, of heartache for these people. And yes, I guzzle it down too but like the majority of viewers, for an hour I do nothing but hope that these perfect strangers I’ll never know will finally find some relief from the situations that have blighted them for so long. And this program helps them to do that.
The thing that bothers me though, is that Long Lost Family is providing a service many people are struggling to access away from the television screen.
I have a close friend who applied to be on Long Lost Family a few years ago. He’d tried all the usual avenues first. He’d put his name on the Adoption Contact Register in hopes that his adopted sibling might do the same so they could be matched; he’d trawled online ‘people-finding’ databases thinking that his brother’s name might be buried in one of them just waiting to be found. And with the arrival of the mighty social networks it had never seemed more promising for my pal to finally have a decent chance at finding the big brother he’d never known.
Emails were sent, letters written, phone calls made. But nothing. It would go on the back-burner while life trundled on, then he’d have another shot, see if it had gotten any more likely since his last efforts.
Maybe he doesn’t want to be found, I said to him once. Finding a sibling after nearly forty years could open up all sorts of cans of worms, how could anyone second-guess the effects it could have, not just on my friend and his family but on the person who was adopted too?
But I already knew the answer. He’s my brother. How can I not look for him?
So how does a person go about finding a sibling who probably doesn’t even know they weren’t an only child? Whose name changed shortly after birth and whose adoptive family’s details remain locked away in some establishment archive somewhere, rightly out of the reach of anyone who might, for whatever reason, come poking around?
Apparently there aren’t many places you can turn. There were organisations offering tracing/intermediary services, but with uncapped fees it’s not something everyone can throw themselves into.
So a couple of years ago, he applied to Long Lost Family, assuming he’d get swallowed up in all the other applications they must surely have. But then they showed interest. A few phonecalls ensued and he was told they’d be in touch over the following months, only, they called back within days. They wanted photos of him, which he emailed off, then the producers were keen to set up a Skype interview with him and find out more about his story. He was all set, with everything crossed, he was going to go for it. They were going to find his brother, or at the very least, exhaust all options on his behalf.
And that’s when he pulled out. When he looked up previous Long Lost Family success stories and stumbled across a throwaway comment about emotion porn.
He couldn’t do it. To his mother, to his father. Going out quietly looking by himself was one thing, but he couldn’t bring himself to risk causing untold pain to the people around him. So he withdrew his application instead and went back to the frustrating routine of trying to prise answers from local authorities who consistently don’t bother to follow up their own offers of assistance.
Nearly twenty years have gone by since my friend first found out that he had an older brother and as he says, life is still skipping by without his brother in it. Will they be old men before they finally meet? The people on Long Lost Family are so often into their senior years by the time they first get a chance to simply say hello. It seems terribly sad to me that the likelihood of my friend’s children ever meeting and sharing something of their own childhoods with any young cousins they may have is becoming slimmer and slimmer with every passing year.
He reasons now that there was never any certainty that the show would’ve found his brother, and he’s right. There wasn’t. But there was a sliver of hope. That he might finally find answers to the questions he’s carried around with him.
What is his brother like? Is he ok? Is he happy? Is he healthy? Did he have a nurtured and loving childhood?
Is he still alive?
Those used to be the biggest questions, my friend said. But he’s heading for forty now, his kids are growing up, his parents getting old. With such limited support for birth siblings who played no part in the circumstances around such separations and who understandably have little or no rights to access information afterwards, the biggest question my friend has now is not what he might find out, but will he ever find out.
So well done to Davina, Nicky and ITV. I’ll be watching every episode. No doubt my friend will watching too.