Television is full of ersatz emotion – reality-show participants weeping extravagantly over the argument-fuelled death of friendships made about ten minutes earlier. Or doing that one-fingered wipe-away of streaming mascara as they lament an unrequited love as everyone ends up looking like drowned puppets.
Outside of television news programmes, real emotion is hard to find. And certainly real emotion about real, emotional things is scarce and thus precious when you stumble upon it. People are encouraged to sob all the time, about pretty much anything; in fact, there are even conventions around on-screen weeping – the unfortunate participant fills up, waves a hand abstractedly then apologises to the camera. I always have to look away at these points; gazing at someone in distress is prurient and rude. That’s what my mum always told me, anyway.
But just sometimes it is possible to share with a total stranger on television a moment of the most amazing, tearful joy. These are times when we’re united by a common humanity, as the need for a family runs through most of us, surely, like a thread of gold. Which is where Long Lost Family (Wednesdays on ITV) comes in.
We’re tough at Radio Times; my fellow television writers and I have hides like stingrays. You can bounce tennis balls off our cynicism because we’ve seen it all. But Long Lost Family gets each and every one of us, every time. Alison’s box of office tissues is exhausted by the end of a LLF series, as we all lose the struggle to hide the tears leaking from our jaded eyes.
I love Long Lost Family because there’s no artifice about it (Protecting Our Foster Kids, on Thursdays on BBC2, is the same; when the kids are happy with their foster carers, it’s there, on the screen, without gloss). You can see real emotion honestly expressed.
In this week’s episode a woman, Christine, who was given up for adoption as a baby, is told that she has a half-sister she knew nothing about. Another participant, Vicky, again given away as a baby, yearns for a blood relative. She wants to “belong” in a way that only a daub of DNA, nature’s franking system, shared with someone else, can make you feel.
Long Lost Family is so human and humane. I love the great big weeping hugs as parts of sundered families unite after decades. We all know that everyone hugs everyone else far too much in these soppy times, but LLF hugs are really meant. There’s a lifetime’s love in them, and we get to watch in a way that isn’t intrusive but magical.
But it’s also a testament to that generation of women, the unmarried girls oppressed by the shame and guilt of others, that they handed over their newborns to strangers for ever. Vicky’s mum talks of how her daughter was removed almost the moment she was born and how she was made to promise never to discuss her child with anyone. It was a promise she kept for decades. “Mum, how did you keep quiet for so long?” wonders her son, who’s delighted at the prospect of a sibling.
Amazingly there are no recriminations, no anger, not even at time lost. Everyone just wants to enjoy their new gift, right away. And again, often these reunited siblings are from another generation, where no one moaned about their lot: “These are the cards you’re dealt; you just get on with it,” says Christine.
By the end, you will probably be weeping along with Vicky as she tells the camera: “It’s amazing, I have a family.”
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news