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Long Lost Family presenter Nicky Campbell: I understand the rejection many adopted people feel

Long Lost Family spin-off, Born Without Trace, has taken an extraordinary path thanks to groundbreaking DNA advancements, says presenter Nicky Campbell. Gemma Dunn finds out more

Great privilege: Nicky Campbell loves making Long Lost Family and its spin-offs
Great privilege: Nicky Campbell loves making Long Lost Family and its spin-offs

Of all Nicky Campbell's career feats, his involvement with Long Lost Family is the one of which he's proudest.

And he certainly has reason to be, with the Bafta-winning anthology series having succeeded in its aim to reunite hundreds of close relatives after years of separation.

"I love it. It's like nothing else; I can't quite believe how lucky I am," begins the broadcaster (57), who co-presents the heartwarming ITV hit, alongside Davina McCall.

"Sometimes I do my BBC Radio 5 Live [breakfast programme] on the same day, and I'll come away from that and then do this [Long Lost Family]," he tells me. "And it's quite a contrast from having phone-ins on Brexit.

"I spend my life trying to avoid cliches and then using them. But it's humbling and it's a privilege, and hopefully it's closure. There's another one, a hat-trick of cliches. But it's quite a watch."

Since its 2011 inception, the popular tearjerker has spanned eight seasons, plus the likes of a revisited edition in What Happened Next, and even a Christmas reunion.

And fans won't have to wait much longer for their next dose either, as the production company - and the show's co-presenters - are back with powerful spin-off, Long Lost Family Special: Born Without Trace.

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Focused solely on foundlings - people who were abandoned as babies, often in the first hours and days of their lives - the 90-minute documentary combines new DNA technology with painstaking detective work, to finally help solve the mysteries of people with unknown beginnings.

"Many people on Long Lost Family feel an emptiness because they have been adopted or estranged, but this is an emptiness and a total void," explains Campbell, who himself was adopted at four days old and chose to trace his own birth mother, Stella, two decades ago.

"I understand, no matter how happy your adoption is, that nagging sense of rejection that many adopted people get," he empathises. "But this is a feeling of rejection on another level.

"This is the most extraordinary programme," he adds. "It's not just profoundly moving, it's socially important, because this goes on and on for these people."

Featured on the show is Jamie Duffy, who was found as a newborn in a hospital car park; Karen Waterton, who was left at five days old in a cardboard box in Manchester, and Alley Lofthouse, who was abandoned on a doorstep in Scotland. All three desperate to piece together their pasts.

The decision to search for information is often one triggered by a significant life change, comments Campbell.

"It's something they've lived with since age zero and it's been a massive eyesore on their psychological landscape," he says of their desperation. "I can't imagine what that's like. I try and take my own feelings and compare them and it's difficult.

"But you've got to keep going," adds the Scottish star. "It just shows you, the fact that they've got hope when in many people's heart of hearts, they feel like they'll never get the answers."

However, thanks to groundbreaking advances in DNA testing, which uses online databases to compare DNA with millions of others who have already tested, some of them just might.

"It's opened up all sorts of possibilities," Campbell states, having worked closely with leading DNA detective Julia Bell and renowned specialist in tracing missing family, Ariel Bruce.

"To be able to get the DNA from a site and get within the third-fourth cousin, and sometimes closer, and then to have the detective work take over, has allowed us this wonderful two-level approach," he notes.

"At the beginning, when we started making this, we thought, 'If we could solve one person's case, that would be incredible'. So the fact that we've managed to get so far with three people, I'm so proud of the team.

"I have to pinch myself that I have been involved in this programme."

Having his own experience with both the adoption and tracing process gives it all the more meaning, too.

"It's important to bring those feelings to it," he confides. "Although it's not a conscious decision to bring them or not, I think it just happens.

"You do understand that sense of identity, although I wouldn't be impertinent enough to say that I understand a foundling's sense of identity," he muses.

"With my adoption, I had some scant details and my parents were very forthcoming and said if I ever wanted to know more, they would tell me as much as they could, and they would help me in any tracing process."

Does he struggle to keep his emotions in check in front of the camera?

"It's really difficult because we get wrapped up in all the emotions; you get to know somebody and you kind of go with them on it," answers Campbell, who's also known for fronting Sunday morning show The Big Questions.

"I think Davina is probably a bit better at holding it together, but I've had my moments, and they don't put any of that stuff in," reveals the father-of-four. "The minute you do that, it becomes about us and those aren't the roles that we have."

Can he see further foundling-focused offshoots?

"There are a few cases that are ongoing at the moment," says Campbell.

"This has been a real turn of events - the DNA - and it's really exciting as it's enabled us to do this and it's enabled us to change lives and give people something they never felt they would have."

Long Lost Family Special: Born Without Trace will air on ITV on Monday, February 25

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