Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace, ITV1, review: still the most tear-inducing show on TV

Davina McCall presents Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace
Davina McCall presents Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace - ITV

The programme most likely to reduce you to tears is back for another series, running nightly this week, and it took me all of five minutes to start weeping at the first episode of Long Lost Family: Born Without Trace (ITV1). It was over a letter written by the couple who adopted Thomas, a baby abandoned at Reading railway station in 1965. “Tom, love, I would love you to find your birth mother so that we can thank her for letting us have you, and for her to see what a lovely person you have become. As ever, your mum.”

Thomas was found underneath a waiting room bench, with a spare nappy and a bottle beside him. He was well-fed and wrapped up in a woollen jacket. Thomas has taken solace from that: “She really did look after me to the best of her ability.”

Abandoned babies are a rare thing in this country now. However, last week it emerged that a child found by a dog-walker in an east London park in January is the sibling of two other babies found in similar circumstances in 2017 and 2019. One can only guess at that mother’s circumstances. In Thomas’s case, though, the cause of his abandonment was enragingly familiar: the Catholic Church in Ireland and the stigma attached to unmarried mothers.

Early in the programme, we learned that researchers had found a DNA match for Thomas: a maternal cousin, Martina. Thomas’s mother and Martina’s father were siblings. Extraordinarily, Martina was also a foundling, left on the steps of a church in Dublin a week before Christmas and just two years after Thomas was born. She was found by the sacristan; the first thing he did was take her inside to have her baptised. Martina said that, like many adopted children, she had grown up fantasising that her birth parents were famous. When she searched for her birth certificate at 16, she found it blank and “the fairy tale ended”.

Sadly, both birth mothers have died, denying Thomas and Martina the chance to be reunited with them. Their stories were different but you could imagine the agony in both cases. Martina’s mother had repeatedly given birth to children she could not keep – her three others were born in Ireland’s hellish mother and baby homes. Thomas’s mother never had another child, but worked as a nanny.

Davina McCall conducted the interviews with gentleness and tact. She presented Thomas with a photograph of his mother, the first he had ever seen. Gazing at her image, he said: “I’d like to just tell her that I’ve had a really brilliant life.”