'I've never been more scared than the day that I met my birth mother'
Nicky Campbell, host of Long Lost Family on ITV, knows how hard it is to go looking for estranged relatives. By Georgia Humphreys
If there's one TV show which deserves the description "tear-jerker", it's Long Lost Family. When the one-minute trailer for the eighth series was released recently, its presenter Nicky Campbell was flooded with tweets from people saying it had them blubbing.
And the poignancy of the documentary series, which aims to reunite family members after years of separation, has never worn off for the 57-year-old Scot, who himself was adopted as a baby.
"How can you get blase about Long Lost Family?" says the TV and radio personality, also known for fronting the likes of Watchdog, Wheel Of Fortune and his breakfast show on 5 Live.
"It's not like a job - I'm incredibly privileged to do it and you have to constantly pinch yourself that this is something that people are paying you to do. It's a life experience."
Campbell and co-presenter Davina McCall meet people from all over the country, who tell their story about a lost relative, whether that be a sibling, a parent, or a child, and then researchers attempt to track them down.
Often, people have limited information about the family member they're looking for - their own search has reached a dead end and they're desperate for help. Indeed, there were "some really tough searches this time around", says Campbell. "And the best feeling ever is when there's a breakthrough."
The new series also takes viewers all over the world. In the first episode, the presenter travels to Colombia for 27-year-old dance teacher Christina (one of the show's youngest-ever searchers). She was adopted by a British couple after her birth parents, who were living in a slum, made the heartbreaking decision they were too poor to raise her.
For Campbell, who has four daughters of his own, the experience of meeting Christina's mum and dad was an unforgettable one.
"We found them and they were still together," he exclaims. "It was incredible. I had a translator there, but I could just tell there were all these emotions swirling about like a thunderstorm of hopes and fears and regrets and wonderful dreams about the future. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life."
He wasn't there when Christina was reunited with her parents, but has since watched it alongside his wife, Tina, and calls it one of the most "incredible bits of television I have ever seen".
"We had to have a huge gin and tonic after," he admits with a chuckle. "We were like quivering wrecks."
Campbell was 29 when he set about finding his birth mum, Stella, through a private detective. And he can empathise with how difficult it can be to make the decision to search for estranged relatives.
"Some people don't know they have to make it, until they actually make it," he notes. "I'm not going to be totalitarian about it and say, 'Oh, everyone should do it', but I do believe that some people don't do it because of the fear of, 'What's on the other side of the door?'"
Of what spurs on the decision, he reasons: "It does come with age and it sometimes comes with big life events, having kids or a relationship ending. You get a jolt and you think, 'Well, what really matters?'"
Stella was 37 when she gave birth to Campbell - she had fled to Edinburgh from Ireland because of the shame associated with being a pregnant unmarried woman. He was adopted by a couple living in the Scottish capital, Frank and Elizabeth, at four days old.
"The day I met my birth mother, I don't think I've ever been more scared," he admits. "Because you go somewhere that you've always thought about and you're not quite sure where it's going to lead and who she's going to be. Just seeing her face and meeting her and talking to her, it's a surreal situation.
"I didn't have any support though, I just did it. If I had the kind of support that Long Lost Family provides for people - it's a brilliantly, wonderfully, properly ethical programme - I think it would have been much easier."
The huge admiration Campbell, who also hosts BBC ethics show The Big Questions, has for Long Lost Family is even more obvious from meeting him in person.
He's thoughtful and animated with every answer he gives, even making notes of things that he might find useful in the future - like when asked if he sees himself as a bit of an agony uncle to the people searching.
"I must remember this actually, as it's never occurred to me before," he says as he starts typing on the iPad in front of him. "We've got a real relationship with each other, because I've been through their journey with them.
"And, at the end, I'm about to leave them - off-camera, normally - and they say, 'We can go for a drink afterwards? Are you going to be around?' And I say, 'Yeah, but I promise you, you won't want to see me afterwards'. And, of course, when they have the reunion, they totally forget about us.
"That doesn't matter, because we both know that's going to be the case. We keep in touch, by email and text, over the years, which is lovely, but more important things come around the mountain."
His kids think his work is cool, too: "What they like about Long Lost Family is their friends know it and their friends' parents like it, as well."
It gets people talking about their own family histories, too, I suggest, sharing that I've loved watching it with my grandparents in the past.
"It resonates with everyone," he enthuses. "So, yeah, watching it with your granny, that's a good experience. Watching it with people is good, isn't it?
"One of my daughters was watching it last series. She was, like, 17 at the time. And she said, 'I love it when you see old people happy'."
And that sums up why we will be tuning into the new series.
Long Lost Family, ITV, Tuesday, 9.30pm