If I were to describe Davina McCall as a woman of substance, would you laugh me out of town? Some might think it absurd – she’s a presenter on the telly, so what? Actually, her habitual self- deprecation is such that she might be the first to join that chorus.
Despite being one of the foremost female entertainment presenter on British television, being on the box – which long ago she needed so very badly, in the hope of becoming visible to the mother who abandoned her – is the least of McCall’s concerns now.
I had reason to ponder this after our interview, which went wrong in a big way shortly after it started – so badly that it came to a halt. (More of which in a moment.) These things happen sometimes, and usually that’s that. But this time there was a way back, and it was thanks to McCall. She had no reason to bother mending what had broken – mine was merely one of a dozen interviews lined up to promote the fifth series of the Bafta-winning Long Lost Family. But repairing life’s breakages, big and small, is what she’s all about.
Her foremost trait isn’t the larky mateyness of her decade fronting Big Brother between 2000 and 2010, or even the nurturing she brings to Long Lost Family, although that’s much closer to the mark. It is her endless desire to make things all right again, as evidenced most clearly by her repeated attempts at reconciliation with her mother.
If you’ve read one interview with McCall, you’ve read a dozen where she describes how her mother, a glamorous alcoholic Frenchwoman called Florence, walked out when McCall was three. Davina Lucy Pascale McCall was placed in the care of her paternal grandmother, Pippy, then went to live with her father Andrew aged 12, six years after he married his second wife, Gaby.
Holiday visits to Florence’s “absolutely mental” world in Paris led to a reliance on cocaine, ecstasy and heroin that nearly killed McCall. She was in her early 20s before she got clean. So far, so familiar. But what is noteworthy is the rock-solid family she has rebuilt from the chaos, with no lingering resentment at the complexities.
My perhaps clumsy attempt to understand why McCall’s father did not immediately have her to live with him led to the interview being halted. At the restart, McCall explained his job in advertising didn’t bring in enough money for a nanny; and when she then used the word “Mum” for Gaby, as she has for many years, it was with evident love.
“Pippy and my dad arranged for me to be with her, and she did it gladly,” smiled McCall. “It kept us together. Dad came down at the weekends, and Mum was so clever. She didn’t wade into my life. Being a step-parent is a difficult role, and she let me come to her. It all worked out.”
Still, McCall could not help attempting to reconcile with her birth mother – though when Florence died in 2008, McCall didn’t attend the funeral. “It was a relief I could stop trying to make her somebody she wasn’t. Every time I’d go back, I’d think maybe this time she would be maternal. It was exhausting. The definition of insanity – expecting a different result.”
Now the whole family, from all generations and step-branches, is close – and in the middle is Davina, drawing everyone in and making sure they’re all right. She lives with her husband of 15 years, Matthew Robertson, and their children, Holly, 13, Tilly, 11, and Chester, eight, in the East Sussex countryside. Pippy, now 95, lives next door. Davina is close to Andrew and Gaby (“Mum and Dad”), and their daughter, now 34.
Her maternal half-sister Caroline lived close by until her death from cancer three years ago. “Pippy is the matriarch who kept us all together,” says McCall, and it isn’t hard to grasp how much of herself Pippy may see in her grand- daughter. Meanwhile, rather than banish all mention of Florence, McCall has photographs of her on display at home.
“It’s when she was a model in the 60s. Holly knows some of the story, and Tilly is learning more. My mother is not shunned. She’s definitely part of our lives. I see her in myself – expressions on my face, and the way I wear scarves. When Matthew and I renewed our vows in April, I promised to be less stroppy and French.”
Nothing is more important to McCall than her extended clan. It’s partly why she’s so right for Long Lost Family, where close relatives are reunited after decades apart. She shares present- ing duties with Nicky Campbell, who was himself adopted at four days old. But McCall’s appeal is more nuanced. Throughout the Big Brother years she was everybody’s big sister; more recently, one review of Long Lost Family observed that, at 47, she is maternal even with those older than her.
“Yes, that’s interesting,” agrees McCall. “You want to mother them because this is a time when they need some TLC. You only search for someone via a TV programme when you’re absolutely desperate. None of these people wants to be on television. It’s a last resort.
“I do stay in touch with the people on the programme. I give every contributor my mobile number. I ask them to send me photos, and I really mean it. This is our fifth series, so that’s a lot of people.
“The producer asked me if it was wise to give out my private number. But no one has ever abused it. They all send me texts about what they’re doing together, and at Christmas I get photos, which make me cry.” Such gestures seem second nature to her. At one point after we resumed our interview, she said: “Can I just tell you… You think I hate you, but I don’t. It’s all right.”
Of course, nobody rises to the top in television by accident. Some say McCall guards her image more carefully than is realised, and they might think it was that which prompted her to restart the interview. That wasn’t how it seemed. The instinct to make things all right requires the accompanying ability to dismiss what is unimportant, and find a way to give things another go. It’s a gift not everyone has.
Long Lost Family is on Wednesday 3rd June at 9:00pm on ITV