Formats Unpacked: Long Lost Family
How a format made it to 11 seasons despite being described as 'a little one-trick'
It’s a very busy time of year for Storythings. At the moment we’re making a bunch of videos and podcasts aimed at young audiences for a range of clients, producing a printed magazine and quarterly online publication for a payroll client, wrapping up a piece of strategy work for a couple of large arts organisations, and embarking on a big piece of research for ourselves. So busy, I didn’t think any of the team would have time to write a Formats Unpacked this week. So it was a great relief to get an email from an old friend of Storythings, Adam Gee, with this unpacking attached.
Adam is a Commissioning Editor and Executive Producer at CAA. He was a long-time Commissioning Editor at Channel 4 and the first Com Ed of Originals at Little Dot Studios. Recently he has been working at Red Bull Media House and Ridley Scott Creative Group.
Over to Adam…
What is it?
Long Lost Family (TV series)
What’s the format?
A factual TV series, eleven seasons in, broadcast on ITV. It helps people find members of their family lost through adoption. I pick it for two reasons: every time I watch it dust gets in my eyes (ok then, yes, those are tears emerging from under my glasses) and every episode is basically the exact same story, just with a different skin.
Each episode interweaves two different tales of hunting down missing mothers, sons, fathers, daughters, siblings. Both story strands culminate in a long-anticipated reunion. Television shows and films should always be an emotional experience and this format never disappoints.
What’s the magic that makes it special?
Although the contributors and locations vary between episodes, the basic story is fundamentally identical every time – and it doesn’t matter at all. That’s because it’s the most basic story in humanity, often revolving around the most basic question: “Did my mother/father love me?” Week after week we see people whose whole life has been overshadowed by this question. Finding out the answer is all they need to obtain a peace that has eluded them their whole life.
The most frequently occurring scenarios include teenage mums pressured to give up their babies, siblings separated in infancy, dads who took off.
The emotional wheels of the programme are oiled by Davina McCall and Nicky Campbell, both consummate pro presenters and very sympathetic.
The programme follows the best practice procedures of social workers in terms of how they bring people back together once a connection has been uncovered. Initially, letters and photographs are exchanged. The presenters always escort the contributors just to the threshold of the IRL reunion, as if preserving the agency and privacy of those involved. Of course, it’s a piece of theatre, making the privileged insight afforded by the TV cameras at the moment of reuniting even more piquant. Often the Long Lost Family team discovers missing people after all conventional methods have failed, sometimes after a lifetime of searching, so the pay-off for the participants is worth a bit of voyeuristic intrusion.
After some 150 tales of separation, why does the gift keep giving? It is as relatable a format as you could conceive – pretty much every one of us has a mother and father, present or absent. It follows a most fundamental human narrative, the quest story – set in motion when child and parent are separated, it reaches resolution when they are brought back together, the most emotionally satisfying of culminations. Of course the team never fail to find the missing family member and the found family member never says “Fuck off, I’m not interested.” So research and casting ensure the power of the story is optimised.
There are occasional variations such as “Sorry, turns out your mum died five years ago” but they are always offset by some element of reuniting like “…but the good news is you have a whole new family of siblings”. These add spice but the format would work perfectly well without them.
The format is based on a Dutch one from 1990 – Spoorloss. The success of the British iteration has given rise to a US version on TLC, one of a handful of international versions.
A reviewer of the original series in a UK broadsheet had this sharp insight: “I can't imagine this continuing for more than a couple of series – it's all a little one-trick: once you've got the hang of the tracking-down-strangers part, there's only so much to be astonished about". Eleven series in it is clear she missed the point – people don’t get bored of separation and belonging, love and loss, longing and forgiveness, guilt and secrets, searching and connecting. We all feel it.
I can’t pick out a favourite episode as they are all pretty much the same. And all equally moving.
I do however have a fond Long Lost Family memory from June 2015 when I was attending Sheffield Documentary Festival. There was a lively session featuring McCall & Campbell and two elderly lady contributors. It turned out that the two old women were siblings separated in infancy who had spent their whole lives, unbeknownst to one another, just 16 miles apart in Yorkshire but had only been reunited in their seventies thanks to this brilliantly human format.
DNA Family Secrets with Stacey Dooley on BBC2 is a chip off the old block but with more technical biological context.
And thanks to Nick Parker who cited Formats Unpacked as one of his favourite reads in an interview with Substack last week. Nick has previously unpacked The Repair Shop, A Life in a Day and more. If you’re interested in brand tone of voice then his newsletter, Tone Knob, should be the most important newsletter you open each week. It really is superb.
Thanks for giving me your time today. If you wanted to give me your words in the form of a comment below or the shape of a format being unpacked, that would also be hugely appreciated.
See you all next week.