Television doesn’t get more teary than this. Forget The Repair Shop. Move aside, One Born Every Minute. To watch ITV’s new four-parter Born from the Same Stranger is to bear witness to a relentless cavalcade of hot, gulping sobs, as the series tries to track down the biological parents of children conceived by donors. Narrated by ITV voiceover queen Davina McCall, it’s an unashamed exercise in lachrymosity – as you might expect from the same team behind Long Lost Family. Is it manipulative? Yes. Is it mawkish? Absolutely. Does it matter? Not in the slightest.
It follows numerous different people, born from a donor, as they look for their unknown blood relations and piece together the missing parts of their identities. The show was filmed last year, when a new UK law came into effect that sees donor anonymity disappear, and anyone conceived by donation after 2005 be able to find out more details about their identity. As the documentary shows, those born earlier are already out there looking.
The first person whose search we follow – and the first of many to be reduced to tears – is Liam. His mum Julie had used a sperm donor in the Nineties to conceive him; she’d always wanted a child but didn’t have a partner. We see Liam visit the clinic where he was conceived, and read about his biological dad’s personality traits on his file – “I am a person of varying moods. Either extremely happy or low. I like to air my opinions and always enjoy lively debate.” This sets him off, of course. As Liam weeps, the slightly awkward clinic director pats him on the arm.
It’s been a two-decade build-up to this moment for Liam, who’d always wanted a dad. Father’s Day cards were written every year, but with nowhere to send them to. Liam’s search for answers isn’t just daunting for him, though. While his mum supports his decision to look for family beyond their tight, two-person unit, she worries that he won’t “want me any more” when he finds it.
The ethical question of whether it’s right to find people, who may not want to be found, hangs heavy over the show. Liam knows that when his biological father made his donation all those years ago, he did it under the promise of anonymity. He struggles with whether to make contact. But he does track down a handful of half-siblings, also donor-conceived, after finding them online. We watch them meet over pints at a London pub. It would be a shame (especially for the producers) if your new family were a complete snore, or not very nice, but this lot all get on great, and seem as if they’ve known each other for years.
Plenty of other donor-conceived people are introduced. There’s Marco, whose parents are gay and needed a sperm donor. Sarah, who only found out she was donor-conceived after the dad who had raised her died. And Isobel, conceived from a donated embryo. Some manage to make contact with their biological parents. When the meet ups happen, they are jubilant. When they don’t – when the parent doesn’t want to meet – the ache of rejection is palpable.
Either way, it’s great TV. My only quibble is that the series allows contrivance to creep in. Text messages, from a group chat between those on the show, pop up onscreen whenever there’s a segue to another person’s story. The texts seem to have been formalised for the purpose of the programme, and as a result, they read as scripted.
But in the end, it’s clear that the Bafta-winning team behind Long Lost Family know what they are doing. The cameras catch every intimate moment: the shock on people’s faces lit by the glow of the computer screen, the careful writing of letters as they reach out to new family, the reassuring hand-squeezes from loved ones. These people know how to tell a good story. Emerging from it unmoved is just about inconceivable.