Prue Leith hasn’t yet been taken into the nation’s hearts in quite the same way as her Bake Off predecessor, Mary Berry. That’s our loss, as this documentary made clear. Perhaps Prue’s a spikier character, but her story – of boarding school in apartheid South Africa, building a multimillion-pound catering business, marrying a man 20 years her senior and giving birth to Danny Kruger, now Tory MP for Devizes – is a fascinating one.
This wasn’t exactly her story, though – or at least not hers alone. This one-off documentary, directed by Lottie Gammon, followed Leith and her non-politician child, daughter Li-Da Kruger, on a journey to Cambodia, where Kruger was born, 45 years ago, amid the chaos of Pol Pot’s rise to power. She was later adopted by Leith and her first husband, Rayne Kruger, and taken to their huge Cotswolds home to begin what was, by all accounts, and including some gorgeously sun-dappled home video footage, an idyllic English childhood. Now, mother and daughter return to Phnom Penh, in the hope of “unravelling the mystery” of Kruger’s origins.
Why now? Leith seemed to be wondering that, too. Of course, the delay is partly evidence of a contented family life, but Leith also admitted to some regret over her past lack of curiosity. “I don’t go scratching the surface looking for problems,” she said of her parenting style. “I wasn’t concerned about Li-Da being wrenched from her cultural roots, or the trauma she must have experienced as a tiny infant.” This regret only intensified as their journey continued and it became clear that some family secrets were lost in time.
It wasn’t just Prue, though, was it? It was the 70s. Attitudes have changed a lot since the days when, in Leith’s words, “We just cavalierly said: ‘We’re adopting!’, and that was that.” The current adoption process is much slower and more cautiously bureaucratic, as Kruger experienced when she adopted her own son. Leith was surely right to question how such processes benefit children in care: “I just always believed that all children need to grow up well is love. Buckets and buckets of love.”
But it’s not that simple, either. Growing up as a racial minority, both in your own country and in your own family must have some sort of impact. That much was obvious as soon as Kruger, newly arrived in Phnom Penh, took stock of her surroundings. “I find I’m constantly looking at Cambodian faces and just seeing myself.” Leith suggested that perhaps she was looking for potential family members, but Kruger clarified: “It’s more like, ‘Could that be me?’”
If, as has been argued, today’s adoption processes are overly concerned with such concepts as “ethnic cultural background”, the irony is that Cambodian-born Kruger and her South African-born mother could hardly be more quintessentially English. Leith was irked by her own leaky tear ducts: “This is ridiculous! I’m not a woman who cries!” And their relationship, though loving, is crisply unsentimental. Unless you would count them responding to bad news by jointly lamenting that it’s “too early for gin and tonics” as girly bonding.
The devastation wrought by the Khmer Rouge means that Leith and Kruger’s task was much more complex than what a pair of amateur genealogists normally face, so their stoicism was practical. Yet it’s not as if the twists and turns of their investigation would not have fully justified some histrionics - or G&Ts. Was Kruger’s birth mother killed by a rocket attack on a hospital? Did her birth father, an injured soldier, carry his infant daughter on his back until he he collapsed? The family legends are dramatic, but this may be one case where the truth, if they can get at it, is more astounding still.
When a long-standing record keeper in Kruger’s birth district recounted a strikingly familiar story of a baby girl born locally in 1974 and given up for adoption, Li-Da bit her (stiff upper) lip and asked: “Is the mother of the baby … is she still alive?” The time it took for their guide to translate this question and then its answer felt like an eternity. Yet, as regular viewers of ITV’s Long Lost Family know, the drama of the search is but a prelude to the family reunion. And we don’t quite get that emotional climax here. Just an emotional reserve that politely pulls back from asking the most pressing questions, and a lot of bemused-looking fourth cousins.