Long Lost Family Special: Born Without Trace review – my heart hurts

No matter what you learn about the family that abandoned you, this film shows there will always be wounds that never heal

Cardboard boxes, doorsteps, hospital car parks, public loos, church steps and streets. These are the places where the subjects of Long Lost Family Special: Born Without Trace (ITV) were left as newborns. Or, as they are still known in the oddly Dickensian vernacular, foundlings. “I was straight out of the womb and put into a pillowcase,” says Alley Lofthouse, welling up on the doorstep of a block of flats in Grangemouth, near Falkirk, where she was abandoned in 1967. Jamie Duffy was found 30 years ago in a hospital car park in Plymouth, wrapped in towels, peeping out of a carrier bag. “You feel unloved, discarded,” he says. Karen Waterton, 60, was five days old when she was left in a cardboard box on a doorstep in Manchester. “I was well looked after and I was warm,” she says. “That means an awful lot to me.”

And so Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell set about solving the mysteries of their parentage, or rather doling out earth-shattering information and really long hugs while DNA experts do the detective work. This involves sending off saliva to be matched with some Bond-esque DNA database containing millions of potential distant cousins. I don’t really understand it – are we all on this database? Do the data experts at Facebook know about it? – but it is a lot more effective than newspaper clippings and adoption files.

“Abandoned” was the first word Waterton saw when she requested her file at the age of 38. She wasn’t given a name until she was four months old; even the police officer assigned to her case was referred to only as PC57. “It made me feel like I didn’t exist,” she says. She has been searching for her birth mother ever since.

Jamie Duffy, who was found in a hospital car park as an infant
Jamie Duffy, who was found in a hospital car park as an infant. Photograph: ITV

This episode shows how the mysteries surrounding foundlings shape entire lives. Each person expresses a need to know where they came from in order to know who they are. There is no judgment, which is touching and lovely, and they all talk about the trauma their birth mothers must have experienced. These are the buried stories that the programme, and the tabloid narrative, doesn’t (and often can’t) unearth: the desperation and deep isolation of women who feel they have no choice but to abandon their babies just after giving birth.

Through DNA testing, Waterton is matched with a half-sister with whom she shares a father – an Irishman who died in 1974. After dispatching the heartrending news off-camera, McCall heads to see Waterton. “He’s got much nicer hair than me,” she whispers when McCall shows her a picture. “I really come from somewhere.” Then McCall drops another bombshell … softly, because she is the queen of soft bombshell-dropping: the half-sister would like to meet her. “I’m worthy of someone meeting me,” Waterton says, breaking down. As Lofthouse says after meeting the half-sister she never knew she had, and also unwittingly providing a three-word review of Long Lost Family, “my heart hurts”.

Then – please, no more – they find Waterton’s birth mother. She died in 2013, having single-handedly raised another child, four years older than Waterton, only seven miles from where Waterton grew up with her adoptive family. She concealed her pregnancy with Waterton and told no one afterwards. It is an extraordinary story – and in no way straightforward. Waterton finds out her birth mother had another baby just one year after her and kept him, too. DNA can only go so far. There will always be mysteries beyond solving, wounds that never heal – and a huge amount of risk involved in seeking the truth.

Nevertheless, everyone gets answers, photos and meetings with previously unknown relatives. The problem with the format is the law of diminishing returns. By the third time McCall drives to someone’s house while a voiceover tells us that “we’ve told [X] that we found her birth mother and sadly she’s passed away”, the impact is diluted. Which is not fair to anyone.

It is the tiny details that really hurt the heart. Returning to the hospital car park with Marie, who discovered Duffy when she was a teenager, he is shown the spot where his birth mother abandoned him. “You were just looking up at us,” Marie says, pointing to a space beside a sign for a rehabilitation centre. “I’ve always believed there was care from my birth mum,” Duffy replies. “It’s comforting to know that I was close to the main entrance.”


Chitra Ramaswamy

The GuardianTramp

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