The trouble with Nicky Campbell as an interviewee is that he insists on being the interviewer. “You’ve got a nice voice, do you sing?” “Look, you’re meant to be interviewing me, but I really can’t let that go”… “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here – would you ever do that?”
Practised as he is in the art of interviewing, Campbell is quite tenacious, too, with that same charm-laden steel he employs to such effect in The Big Questions, BBC TV’s Sunday-morning show on ethics and religion, which he has hosted since 2007.
Campbell comes to the door of his pretty double-fronted south London home, hair sticking up in the heat, and wraps me in a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. This is unfortunate, as I have a filthy cold, which makes him shrink when I explain – his voice is his livelihood, after all.
The broadcaster’s other regular gigs are the BBC’s 5 Live Breakfast show, and the ITV series Long Lost Family, which he co-hosts with Davina McCall, that reunites birth parents with their adult children who were adopted as babies. The series, which returns this week, won a Bafta earlier this year. Campbell was adopted himself: he was born and brought up in Edinburgh by Scottish parents but later tracked down his biological Irish parents, which he wrote about in his 2004 memoir Blue-Eyed Son: the Story of an Adoption. He is the patron of the British Association for Adoption and Fostering (BAAF).
I had just watched an episode from the last series of Long Lost Family and, of course, sobbed – the longing of the adult child or the parent to be reunited, the apprehension, the excitement, and then the instant, profound recognition on meeting is extraordinary, intimate television. Why doesn’t it feel exploitative? “Because it’s done respectfully and tastefully and incredibly empathetically, and the people who work on it give great support,” says Campbell.
“Graham Norton came up to me and Davina after the Baftas and said that it was his favourite programme. He said, ‘Do you know why I like it? Because you don’t feel grubby watching it.’”
One of the most striking features of Long Lost Family is when the physical similarity between the two reunited family members is so strong. Which was the case for Campbell when he saw his birth mother, Stella, for the first time in a Dublin hotel foyer when he was 29. “You have a sort of nebulous figure in the mist of your mind, and gradually they emerge from the mist and you see a face, and you think, ‘Oh right.’”
Campbell, 53, is married to radio journalist Tina Ritchie (his second wife) and the couple have four daughters, ranging from 16 to ten years of age (Breagha, meaning “beautiful” in Gaellic, Lilla, Kirsty and Isla). We look at the many photos of them dotted around the room and he sighs, “I love my girls.”
On one wall is a pair of antique antlers and photos of his Scottish parents, while on another wall there’s a picture of his music hero Frank Sinatra and a rather glamorous black and white photo of Julie Andrews.
He has a ridiculous work schedule. On Sunday afternoons he travels to Salford (where he has a small flat) for his weekday breakfast show on 5 Live.“It is hectic. I wake up at 5.15am so I like to turn the light off at 10pm – rock… and… roll,” he says drily. “Then on Friday I come back to London and walk the dogs [Maxwell, a labrador and Misty, a West Highland terrier], have dinner with the family, and get my notes together, then leave on a Saturday to film on the Sunday for The Big Questions.” Tina visits him in Salford once a week.
“We have ‘Date Day’ on Wednesdays, and we actually see more of each other now than we did before. We make a point of going out for a nice lunch, and spend time with each other.”
Does he ever feel like an absent father? “Well, no, because I speak [to the girls] every night and do Skype and Facetime and everything.” Still, he must miss his children? “Of course I do. That’s why I make the most of weekends. I’ve got a job up there, but it’s not like I’m in, y’know, Helmand Province.”
Does he ever have friends round to dinner when he’s at home? “You know what my idea of a great night out is? It’s a great night in. I like to pour myself a big gin and tonic, not with the Chinese food,” he says fastidiously, “then maybe a nice cold beer with the Chinese food, with my family all around me, having a laugh, shouting at each other like normal families do, and watching a load of old c**p on the TV.”
The way he lives sounds completely mad. “That’s why I’m writing the music – on top of everything else. It’s therapy. I’ve been writing songs for ever.” He has an album of songs, We’re Just Passing Through, co-written with Kate Robbins, whose smoky vocals have backed Dire Straits, Paul McCartney and 10cc.
Our conversation is constantly interrupted by him leaping across the room, to put on another track – “You’ll like this one!” Or him starting to croon, “be-dah-boo-dah-be-dah-doo…” There is a gorgeous track, Something Wonderful and New, which is a love song to his wife. Was she thrilled when she heard it? Campbell shrugs, “It’s not the first one I’ve written for her.”
Later, he lambasts the outgoing BBC Trust Chairman, Lord Patten, for saying that the corporation hasn’t got enough women. “He’s just so ignorant,” he says, sounding properly vexed. “It drives us mad at 5 Live because we’ve got some of the greatest female broadcasters in the country [he says this before it is announced two of them, Sheila Forgarty and Victoria Derbyshire are leaving in October], and he only listens to Radio 4 and 3. If I was Chairman of the BBC, I would have made it my task to find out what was on the BBC, wouldn’t you? Though in a way it’s quite good that this man at the heart of the British Establishment, a life in ermine – doesn’t really know about 5 Live because we’re a little bit of a cuckoo in the nest at the BBC.”
Campbell’s wife pokes her head round the door to offer tea. “Nicky’s just going through a long list of women,” I say.
“The ones he’s slept with?” Tina enquires.
“No! Women broadcasters!” he exclaims.
Campbell says that because he’s Scottish he’s “got chips on both my shoulders about England… it’s a football thing”, but hurriedly adds that his wife and children are English and that he loves England. You do wonder, for all his cheerfulness, if Campbell is a tiny bit chippy underneath the breeziness, mainly because of his comments in the past saying that he could easily do Jeremy Paxman’s job, but Paxman couldn’t do his. Ironically, today is the day of Paxman’s last-ever Newsnight and Campbell has nothing but praise for him, calling him “an interviewer nonpareil”.
He claimed in his memoir that his biological father and grandfather were IRA members, but he refuses to talk about the IRA. Nor will he be drawn on the Middle East, euthanasia or religion, because of his role at the BBC, though he says he is spiritual rather than religious.
“You have moments of transcendence. To touch a gorilla’s fingers is one of the most spiritual experiences I’ve ever had.”
He is passionately against poaching and because of his work in the field of adoption, is also strongly opposed to anonymous sperm donation. “I’m very, very against it; it’s reducing sperm to the level of cake mix. You can say, ‘Well, they’ve taken my anonymity away’ – sorry mate, it’s a human being’s right to know who they are and what stock they have come from.”
Won’t fewer people donate as a result? “Tough. Which comes first? People’s right to have children or the children’s right to know who they are?”
Campbell is quite often moved to tears when filming Long Lost Family. Indeed, the one thing that he will say about the next series is that he cries more in it than in any previous series. “It’s when people say things that are so emotionally honest they can take your breath away.
“There was one father who was very far away,” he begins, with a sharp intake of breath, “and for reasons that were completely not his fault, he was talking about his daughter who he thought about every day, but had never seen. I thought about me being in that situation and so I started crying – I’m nearly starting to cry again…”
What else upsets him? “Litter.” The other day, he shouted at some lads up the road from his home who were kicking rubbish around. “I asked them very politely to put it in a bin and they covered me in spittle all over my hair.” What did he do?
“I walked home and I went upstairs and had a shower and lay on the bed. I called Tina and she came up and I talked to her about it and I was extremely upset… you’re only trying to do the right thing and someone covers you in gob. I didn’t feel good about it at all.”
As I leave I ask him if he can carry on this frenetic work pace forever. “Oh my goodness me,” he answers in his soft Scottish voice. “I want to be walking my dogs on a beach in Scotland before too much longer. As you get older you start to think about things like that.”
He insists the only programmes he wanted to do were the ones he is doing now. But if they were taken away from him?
“I would ask for them back. I love doing The Big Questions – I love the debate, the spiky stuff – and I love the heart stuff of Long Lost Family.”
What if you were given an extra day in the week for your fantasy job. Would would it be? “One programme a week, two hours on Radio 2, playing whatever the hell I want.”
Long Lost Family is on tonight at 9:00pm on ITV
Nicky Campbell’s album We’re Just Passing Through is out now. Details on robbinscampbell.com, proceeds go to BAAF. Campbell also hosts 5 Live Breakfast, Monday to Friday, 6:00am