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Formats Unpacked: Long Lost Family

A classic TV format analysed by Adam Gee for Formats Unpacked – the published article is here

What is it?

Long Lost Family (TV series) 

What’s the format?

A factual TV series, eleven seasons in, broadcast on ITV. It helps people find members of their family lost through adoption. I pick it for two reasons: every time I watch it dust gets in my eyes (ok then, yes, those are tears emerging from under my glasses) and every episode is basically the exact same story, just with a different skin.

Each episode interweaves two different tales of hunting down missing mothers, sons, fathers, daughters, siblings. Both story strands culminate in a long-anticipated reunion. Television shows and films should always be an emotional experience and this format never disappoints.

What’s the magic that makes it special?

Although the contributors and locations vary between episodes, the basic story is fundamentally identical every time – and it doesn’t matter at all. That’s because it’s the most basic story in humanity, often revolving around the most basic question: “Did my mother/father love me?” Week after week we see people whose whole life has been overshadowed by this question. Finding out the answer is all they need to obtain a peace that has eluded them their whole life. 

The most frequently occurring scenarios include teenage mums pressured to give up their babies, siblings separated in infancy, dads who took off.

The emotional wheels of the programme are oiled by Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, both consummate pro presenters and very sympathetic.

The programme follows the best practice procedures of social workers in terms of how they bring people back together once a connection has been uncovered. Initially, letters and photographs are exchanged. The presenters always escort the contributors just to the threshold of the IRL reunion, as if preserving the agency and privacy of those involved. Of course, it’s a piece of theatre, making the privileged insight afforded by the TV cameras at the moment of reuniting even more piquant. Often the Long Lost Family team discovers missing people after all conventional methods have failed, sometimes after a lifetime of searching, so the pay-off for the participants is worth a bit of voyeuristic intrusion. 

After some 150 tales of separation, why does the gift keep giving? It is as relatable a format as you could conceive – pretty much every one of us has a mother and father, present or absent. It follows a most fundamental human narrative, the quest story – set in motion when child and parent are separated, it reaches resolution when they are brought back together, the most emotionally satisfying of culminations. Of course the team never fail to find the missing family member and the found family member never says “Fuck off, I’m not interested.” So research and casting ensure the power of the story is optimised. 

There are occasional variations such as “Sorry, turns out your mum died five years ago” but they are always offset by some element of reuniting like “…but the good news is you have a whole new family of siblings”. These add spice but the format would work perfectly well without them.

The format is based on a Dutch one from 1990 – Spoorloss. The success of the British iteration has given rise to a US version on TLC, one of a handful of international versions. 

A reviewer of the original series in a UK broadsheet had this sharp insight: “I can’t imagine this continuing for more than a couple of series – it’s all a little one-trick: once you’ve got the hang of the tracking-down-strangers part, there’s only so much to be astonished about”. Eleven series in it is clear she missed the point – people don’t get bored of separation and belonging, love and loss, longing and forgiveness, guilt and secrets, searching and connecting. We all feel it.

Favourite Episode

I can’t pick out a favourite episode as they are all pretty much the same. And all equally moving. 

I do however have a fond Long Lost Family memory from June 2015 when I was attending Sheffield Documentary Festival. There was a lively session featuring McCall & Campbell and two elderly lady contributors. It turned out that the two old women were siblings separated in infancy who had spent their whole lives, unbeknownst to one another, just 16 miles apart in Yorkshire but had only been reunited in their seventies thanks to this brilliantly human format. 

Similar Formats

DNA Family Secrets with Stacey Dooley on BBC2 is a chip off the old block but with more technical biological context.

Adam is a Commissioning Editor and Executive Producer at CAA. He was a long-time Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 and the first Com Ed of Originals at Little Dot Studios. Recently he has been working at Red Bull Media House and Ridley Scott Creative Group.

Nicky & Davina

Tears through the Years – Sheffield DocFest Day 3

Fred Hampton Black Panther

Started the day with the best documentary I’ve seen so far – The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the revolution.  I was introduced to its talented, measured director Stanley Nelson as I entered Showroom 3 cinema. I told him about some footage we found in the attic of Solus, my first job, of James Baldwin with two Panthers in London (with Huw Wheldon for BBC’s Monitor shot by Jack Hazan).

It’s a masterful historical doc, the story told perfectly in a clear, disciplined and balanced way. Huey Newton’s story is plain tragic. The women protagonists are powerful and impressive. The stand-out character is Fred Hampton, a captivating orator assassinated by the Chicago pigs.

The story couldn’t be more resonant than now with the chain of events unravelling recently like this:

I chatted after with Stanley and Dick Fontaine (of the National Film & TV School) about the trustworthiness of police testimony then and now, and the power of the US authorities through the last 50 years.

Middle of the day was Roast Beef’s curious The Russian Woodpecker – an oblique route in to capturing the looming resurgence of the Cold War. It takes an artist, Fedor Alexandrovich, to know which way the wind blows in Russia/Ukraine and to become as much an over-the-horizon radar as the mysterious Duga early-warning system he discovers in the shadow of Chernobyl. Conspiracy theory, Cold War paranoia, arty kookiness and Soviet spookiness make a heady brew. Fedor and director Chad Garcia attended the screening in Sheffield’s library.

Rounded off the day at a session on Long Lost Family chaired in his usual ebullient way by ITV’s Simon Dickson (a former colleague at Channel 4) and featuring Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell. It is quite the most emotional show on TV and beautifully made (bar the music). The high production values and excellent direction mark it out from its roots in a Dutch format and a US version. Captures exactly the strengths of UK factual TV. Constructing the format on the official social worker process of adoption reunion was clever thinking. Davina and Nicky are both total pros with real heart. I’ve just watched the latest episode and there was not a dry eye in the hotel room.

Long Lost Family davina mccall nicky campbell

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