Long Lost Family: handle with care

Beware the gawp factor - personal moments can make gripping but intrusive TV

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There are moments in the otherwise excellent Long Lost Family, ITV1’s emergency, non-celebrity version of Who Do You Think You Are?, when parents are reunited with children they gave up for adoption, that feel uncomfortably like the dramatic pauses in reality shows like MasterChef and The X Factor.

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Davina McCall, who has policed her Big Brother volume levels, adopts a small, caring voice and smiles cutely as she tells a participant who has spent years tracking down a parent he has never known: “I’m here because I’ve got some news… we have found your father. Would you like to see a picture?”

At this point I defy you not to launch into an outraged outburst on behalf of the by now shocked and weeping man as you yell, “What do you think? OF COURSE he wants to see a picture of the father he has never known.”

These are terribly arch interludes in what is otherwise a tender and emotional documentary series that taps into our universal need to belong. Programmes end as cameras follow the mums and dads, sons, daughters and siblings as they meet for the first time as adults. It’s impossible to convey how charged these encounters are, as a lifetime’s questions are often left unasked in the face of overwhelming joy and tears.

I marvel at how often participants in these series are willing to share what you would think were the most intensely private minutes of their lives with a television audience of strangers. This, in turn, makes me feel uncomfortable. Why am I watching? Do I care about people I have never met? Or am I just gawping?

I wonder, too, when we lost what you would think was a basic human requirement – to keep these often painful and difficult emotions and times to ourselves, or at least to within the confines of our own families. I admire people who are prepared to share these experiences with me, while knowing I would never, ever do the same.

In this week’s Children’s Craniofacial Surgery we sit with parents whose children are undergoing extreme, lengthy, life-threatening surgery for serious genetic conditions that result in severe facial deformities. Every muscle in my heart strains with sympathy for what must be an unendurable anguish; maybe it helps these parents to share the burden with strangers.

Similarly in the recent A Family for Maisie, the would-be adoptive parents of a sad, difficult and angry little girl allowed cameras to film Maisie’s fury and tantrums, as well as their own impotent tears, for a very uncomfortable documentary. 

Neil Morrissey, an actor used to the public stage, invited a large TV audience on a very private journey back into his past as a child in a care home.

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Both programmes were laudable and had something to say about adoption and the care home system. I am glad they were made. But all of us who watched held someone else’s privacy and vulnerability. These are precious gifts and they must be handled carefully.