Nicky Campbell on adoption, guilt and a dog called Maxwell

March 15, 2021. Series 3. Episode 23

Nicky Campbell is one of Britain’s best-known radio and TV presenters – a voice and face of calm, decency and reason. A personality whose talent, craft and ambition led him to Radio One, Wheel of Fortune, Top of the Pops and Watchdog. For the last 18years he has presented the Radio Five Live Breakfast Show and since 2011 Long Lost Family – where he helps reunite adopted children with their birth parents. Yet for so many years, away from the microphones and cameras, Nicky was secretly battling mental health issues that flowed from his own adoption as a baby in Edinburgh. After meeting his birth mother, Nicky’s struggles for identity deepened, ending with a breakdown in 2013. After that dramatic collapse outside Euston Station, he was diagnosed as type 2 bi-polar … a condition that he discovered his birth mother had also suffered. Nicky came through thanks to the support and love of his wife Tina, their daughters and his beloved dog Maxwell. He has detailed his emotional journey in his brilliant new book One of the Family. A raw, intense but valuable conversation for anyone struggling to understand themselves and their identity.

Nicky’s Crisis Cures:
1. The Beatles – I fell in love with them when I was 12. I remember hearing my sisters ‘With the Beatles’ cassette – they just spoke to me. It has a hymnal quality which I find incredibly moving – I want ‘Hey Jude’ played at my funeral.
2. The Highlands – We took our holidays there. The smell of the heather, the smell of the ferns. The burns, the fields and the farms and the midges and the rain – I adored it. It’s where I feel the happiest
3. Book – On The Origin Of Species – Charles Darwin. I’ve got into the whole idea of common ancestry – I love that phrase of Richard Dawkins “The Magic of Reality” – the idea that science is more spiritually spine-tingly amazing than anything in the scriptures. I’ve really got into that.

Adoption UK:
David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage:
One Of The Family:
The Wild Swan at Coole – Yeats:

Show notes:
Nicky’s life as I’ve said throughout this interview was, until 2013, something of a slow-moving crisis. He says himself that his adoption provided a drive, an ambition that led him to being so successful. But it also laid the tracks for a darker, more difficult journey – a journey to discover his identity – and which ultimately led to the bipolar diagnosis he shares with his birth mother.
He spoke thoughtfully about coming to terms with the paradox of adoption as he calls it … that he wanted to belong with his birth mother, but he didn’t want that to mean he’d no longer belong with his Mum and Dad Frank and Sheila.
Nicky’s analysis of that paradox – and how he managed to resolve it – I thought carried wider lessons for anyone in crisis. As he puts it ‘It’s okay not to know how you feel and it’s okay to feel nothing – to just go with the flow’. Though simple, it’s an approach we can all deploy from time to time.
The dogs in Nicky’s life have clearly played an important part too, offering him incredible support over the years. From Toby, the dog he spent the first nine days of his life with, then Candy – his childhood companion, through to Maxwell his current dog who inspired a book and as Nicky says – changed his life.

Stream/Buy ‘Allies’ by Some Velvet Morning: 

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Host – Andy Coulson

Producer – Louise Difford


Full transcript: 

00:00:00.00 Intro music


00:00:19.04 Andy Coulson:

Hello and welcome to Series three of Crisis What Crisis? A podcast designed to be a useful field guide as we all try to navigate and continue to come to terms with a dramatically changed world. Whether personal, professional or both, crisis is without doubt, the new shared experience. I’m Andy Coulson, a former newspaper editor, Downing Street Director of Communications and one time inmate of HMP Belmarsh. For the last five years I’ve put all of my experience, the good and the bad, to use as a strategic advisor to business leaders and I can tell you that the bad has been just as useful as the good. And that got me thinking, as the first lockdown began, that there are plenty of great podcasts out there where you can hear stories of success but there are far fewer where you can benefit from the experience of those whose lives have properly unravelled.


00:01:05.15 Andy Coulson:

So, in Crisis What Crisis? I talk to the embattled, shamed, courageous, ruined, damaged, resilient, unlucky and lucky survivors of crisis. Some names will be familiar, some less so, our guests share their experiences though, with honesty, often with humour but always in the hope that they might be useful to anyone facing down their own demons and challenges. Put simply these are crisis conversations worth sharing. Stay tuned at the end of the episode when I’ll give my thoughts and takeaways, the lessons, if you like, for when life unravels. And if you enjoy the podcast please do subscribe and give us a rating and a review, it really helps make sure these stories reach an even wider audience of people who may find them useful and that in the end is what it’s all about.


00:01:52.20 Andy Coulson:

Crisis What Crisis? is generously supported by Myndstream, a brilliant company who harness the power of music for personal wellbeing. Whether it be music for meditation, to help focus, sleep, stress relief, yoga and fitness, rejuvenation even grief and loss, Myndstream is there to improve human performance. I’ve tried it, it works and I’d recommend having a listen to the Myndstream catalogue yourself. Just search Myndstream, that’s mind with a Y, on Spotify. Thanks again for joining me.


00:02:25.23 Andy Coulson:

I’m absolutely delighted that my guest today is Nicky Campbell, one of Britain’s best loved broadcasters and presenters. From Radio One to the Wheel of Fortune, Watchdog and onto the Radio Five Breakfast Show which he’s hosted for eighteen years, Nicky has been a familiar, calming and fundamentally decent voice for so many of us, for so many years. But what’s remarkable is that behind the success, behind the public profile, Nicky was dealing with a slow-moving crisis of the most traumatic kind.


00:02:56.10 Andy Coulson:

In his brilliant new book, One of the Family, Nicky lays bare that story, a boy adopted as a baby into a loving family in Edinburgh but who, as he grows up, is quietly pushing against a growing emotional tide. A tide that would in 2013 eventually wash over him. That more extreme moment of crisis, a breakdown, led to a diagnosis of type two bipolar and I’m delighted to say a recovery with the help of professionals and his family, including, crucially, his four legged therapist, Maxwell, his Labrador. A dog who, passionate animal lover Nicky, also writes about with pride and emotion in the book. So this is a crisis conversation unlike any we’ve had before. With, I hope, lessons for those going through difficulties of their own, whatever the cause. Nicky Campbell, thank you for joining us on Crisis, What Crisis? How are you today?


00:03:50.09 Nicky Campbell:

It’s fine, is it unlike any you’ve had before? I mean, so many people suffer from mental health. It’s been a kind of slow burn but I mean, on your podcast you’ve had people that have come back from the brink and they’ve fought raging stuff. I’ve experienced what many people experience and many people don’t have the chance to get somebody to help them with. So it was a very nice intro apart from that, I just think…


00:04:20.05 Andy Coulson:

Do you know, one of our first guests, Martha Lane Fox, said that crisis isn’t a competition.


00:04:25.01 Nicky Campbell:

No, no I just…


00:04:25.20 Andy Coulson:

And she was absolutely spot on. And that’s my point really is that your story is unique and it’s not one… we have talked actually wit another guest, I want to mention him a little bit later, Lemn Sissay, the poet who found himself in care, we’ll mention that a little bit later, and there were some similarities there but also some very, very big differences in your story. But I think you’re being modest; I think the story is unique and I think the story is powerful. But let’s leave it there. This book is brilliant, Nicky. Unbelievably honest and emotional and if you don’t mind me saying so, useful. The challenge of being adopted, most importantly is at its centre, but also a range of other issues that will affect so many people that read it, think. Is it the book though, that you set out to write? Because at times you sound as surprised by what you’re saying as the reader might be.


00:05:27.03 Nicky Campbell:

No, that’s such a good question, it wasn’t really. Because I wanted to do a book about my love for animals, my fight for animals and my obsession for animals which is actually part of my mental health issue as well and drove me to the brink, that desperation. But then I wanted to sort of focus in on dogs and my amazing dog Maxwell who has meant so much to me because it took me back to my childhood dog, Candy. So in a way Max was a kind of time tunnel that took me back to the ages of zero to eleven. And then I thought, well, if I write about how he’s helped me and what he’s done for me and the magic that dogs impart on one’s life I thought well, I’ve got to really explain how he’s helped me. And I couldn’t really swerve the breakdown because he helped me so much when I had the breakdown in 2013.


00:06:25.14 Nicky Campbell:

So I thought, you know what it’s like, you understand the media better than anyone, and your colleague, I remember discussing mental health issues with Alistair Campbell and he said ‘Why don’t you do an interview with GQ about your bipolar?’ And I thought, I’m not ready, I don’t want to become Mr Bipolar, every single kind of show, kind of, bipolar type two, bipolar type one is far more severe and I didn’t want to be… It’s This Morning here, I love going on This Morning to plug shows, yeah, it’s great, it’s a great… although funnily enough I’m doing one soon because the cat’s out the bag. But that was what I was afraid of. So I said to Alistair, ‘No not yet.’ And then I thought well if I’m going to be honest in the book… And the show you didn’t mention on the way through is perhaps the most kind high profile I’ve done which is Long Lost Family on ITV which is about, a beautifully done programme about reuniting families and adoption.


00:07:21.18 Andy Coulson:

Yeah, I want to talk about that.


00:07:23.24 Nicky Campbell:

I do it with Davina McCall and I kind of generally thought, we’ve asked people to lay bare the emotional intimacy of their life and to tell us their stories for want of a better word, and if I didn’t do that, and their stories have inspired loads of people and it’s the show that people cross the street to say, ‘Oh you do long lost family. That’s great’, not interested in me, they’re interested in the show which I’m comfortable with that. But I thought if these people have been so honest and I’m going to do this book, I’ve got to be completely honest. So I kind of gritted my teeth and got on with it and thought, okay, let’s talk about that as well.


00:08:08.05 Andy Coulson:

There’s a lot to get through from a crisis perspective but if it’s alright with you I’d like to start right at the beginning.


00:08:15.15 Nicky Campbell:

A very good place to start.


00:08:16.15 Andy Coulson:

Your book details how you were born in a home in Edinburgh where, for nine days of your life, you remained with your birth mother, Stella Lackey. She’d come over from Ireland to have you, she was a single woman, a nurse. And for those nine days you were together until as arranged, you were handed to the amazing couple who would become your mum and dad, Shelia and Frank Campbell. As I say, reading the book it was the start of a very, very slow-moving crisis for you. But it was also a moment that set your life, in so many ways, on such a positive course. You know we talk a lot on this podcast about the need to find positives in crisis but it strikes me that you are, your family are, the embodiment of that strategy, if you like. Do you see it that way?


00:09:05.03 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, but that’s the paradox, no matter how happy you are, if you’re given the narrative that you are special and that you’re chosen, which is far better than finding out that you were adopted when you’re 21 years old or whatever… Many people in Long Lost Family were joining a football club at thirteen and had to have their birth certificates and ‘oh, you’re adopted’ and dreadful realisations. And so I had that on the one side but being special means being different and being chosen means being different and I didn’t want to be different. And I had this narrative from the beginning which was the proper thing to do but it’s very difficult to handle, this woman somewhere whose given you away. And that’s the conflict. The conflict is you could not be happier, you’ve got the most amazing mum and dad in the world and yet you feel different and you don’t want to feel different.


00:10:03.05 Nicky Campbell:

And I talk about my tenth birthday in the book where I was in a hotel in Inverness in this little snug alcove with beige leather, it’s funny how you can remember this stuff, isn’t it? And there was this guy on the organ who looked like Elvis Presley. And we were having high tea, one of those cakes stands and cakes and then we were having ham sandwiches just on their own with mustard, this is back in the early seventies of course before cuisine kicked in. And then the birthday cake came in and the singing, ‘happy birthday, happy birthday’ I just remember bursting into tears and feeling utterly forsaken, utterly miserable that I didn’t belong, I didn’t deserve to be there at that point because I was meant to be someone else. I didn’t know who I was meant to be but I shouldn’t have been there, it was only as I said, a little twist of fate that I was there. Now, I’m articulating it now but I felt it then, I felt everything that I’m saying now, I can use big words now but it is exactly what I felt.


00:11:17.09 Andy Coulson:

I’m going to read the passage from the book, because it was a moment that I wanted to ask you about. So if I may, I’m just going to read a short passage, just to add to what you’ve just said. “Nothing felt real and I knew in a moment of great clarity that has never left me for a moment since what it was like to be the imposter. How could anyone be celebrating my birthday, my birth day, the day on which my mum and dad had not even known who I was. The day on which my mother, who’d given birth to me, had already decided she didn’t want me. I was the biggest fake of all.” I mean, it’s just heart breaking, Nicky, on so many levels. Not least the idea for me that you felt, as a ten year old boy, just so alone when in actuality you’re surrounded by love.


00:12:07.07 Nicky Campbell:

Exactly, I’m there with my mum and dad. My adopted mum and dad are my real mum and dad. It’s the great kind of paradox and conflict of adoption. A lot of people, I’m not going to generalise and say everybody that is adopted feels like that, but I think there’s something in the heart and core of it that there’s a soupçon of it in everyone. And I know a lot of people feel it very, very deeply. And doing Long Lost Family for eleven years took me back to it and taught me so many lessons about my birth mother and why she did the things she did and why she was the way she was when we met her. I say we, me and my birth sister.


00:12:44.09 Nicky Campbell:

And so yeah, it was… but you’re right, it’s still difficult coming to terms and trying to explain the fact that you were blissfully happy but incredibly fragile and incredibly emotionally fragile. It’s difficult to explain that because a lot of people might think, oh what are you complaining about? First world problems. There you are in a nice terraced house in Edinburgh, sent to a private school, all that stuff. Although they didn’t have any money they just had that priority to you know.


00:13:19.09 Andy Coulson:

Yeah, yeah, there’s a fair bit of that in the book. Your natural inclination to push against the ‘oh god, people are thinking that I’m thinking why me? That I’m kind of wallowing around.’ You deal with that quite a lot in the book. That’s your natural instinct and that perhaps is why you didn’t talk about it before finally you did in the book.


00:13:40.18 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, probably it’s a bit defensive but what cheers me is that thus far people have messaged me and said, ‘Oh my goodness, that bit was just like my life and you were talking about my life. That’s exactly how I felt. And that feeling of being an imposter.’ Even people saying, ‘I’m not adopted at all but I understand that, I understand that conflict. meeting my birth mother I understand… thank you very much for talking about the mental health issue.’ And that’s been kind of overwhelming. A genuinely moving because as a broadcaster it’s all about reaching out and connecting with people.


00:14:21.02 Nicky Campbell:

And the fact that it has seemingly done that with so many people is an amazing, an amazing feeling. And because it makes me feel part of the family as well. It makes me feel that I’m not alone because there’s so many… like we’re all in this orphanage and all these people, we’re all in one great big orphanage trying to find our way home. And I just… you feel that strength in numbers, people saying yeah… and it’s a bloody amazing feeling, it really is.


00:14:53.18 Andy Coulson:

I mentioned Lemn Sissay earlier, I don’t know how much of his story you know but there are some parallels but there are some very, very big differences. Young mum, comes over from Ethiopia, forced really, to give him up and later prevented from getting him back. Fostered by a couple for the first twelve years of his life and then they give him back. They don’t actually adopt him; he’s fostered for that period of time. He believes they’re his mum and dad and then he’s handed back into the care system and all sorts of other horrors ensue. Very different story but we talked with Lemn about his search for identity in a very different way but also this battle to belong but at the heart of it an ability, and this is where perhaps there is a parallel, the ability from both of you to forgive. How did you manage to find that forgiveness, Nicky?


00:15:49.04 Nicky Campbell:

My birth mother? Well that’s another twin-track thing. The narrative I was given, if I can explain it, was this wonderful, generous, wise woman who wasn’t able to look after me and so I was put up for adoption and we’re your mummy and daddy now. And so I had this thing in my mind all the time of this incredible woman kind of floating around in a cloud of wonderfulness. But then at the same time, that’s why I’ve got my single tracks and double tracks mixed up because there was a real double track back then which was, well if she was so wonderful and if she’s a nurse and she’s looking after people, why did she give me away? Why didn’t she want me? Why did she reject me?


00:16:44.06 Nicky Campbell:

And so that narrative was quite an emotionally abrasive one. And the reason I’m trying to get my head round, having had the vaccination yesterday and having a brain fog, what I’m trying to explain is that later in life, once I had met her, I then found it very difficult to come to terms with what she was like as compared with what I thought she was going to be like. And how little she was giving and was able to explain and how superficial her existence as regards me and my birth sister was. attempting to just step in and become our ‘mummy’ again without any analysis or explanation or what happened or exposition of her feelings. And it was only later on that I came to understand that a little bit more. And the reasons for what she did and also the clues that were there about how she really felt. So it’s quite complicated and that’s why things are quite complex.


00:17:56.02 Andy Coulson:

You have a phrase…


00:17:57.10 Nicky Campbell:

Does that make any sense?


00:17:58.20 Andy Coulson:

It does make sense and you had a short phrase in the book that you use to kind of sum up your disappointment in the lack of detail or engagement in the way that you just described. You said “it was all trifles”.


00:18:13.23 Nicky Campbell:

Trivia, trifles, stuff of nonsense.


00:18:16.09 Andy Coulson:

Just superficiality.


00:18:18.13 Nicky Campbell:

Well that’s the thing but then again with my defensive thing now, for goodness sake what do you expect? And this is what I’ve come to realise she went through so much, she had two babies adopted within eighteen months of each other in Edinburgh, me and my birth sister who later found her and then found me. And it was so much in her life and she was bipolar. So there were are, adopted people are always looking for a connection, she was bipolar type one. And I was, I just thought what is that? This chaotic woman comes into the hotel lobby in Dublin with her hair everywhere and she’d overslept because she was so worried she’d taken sleeping tablets; this was not what…


00:19:01.04 Andy Coulson:

You’re what? 29 was it, the age when you found and connected with your birth mother?


00:19:09.02 Nicky Campbell:

I was 29 years old. It was the anniversary of the Easter Rising in Dublin and it was that weekend, I couldn’t get a drink. There was some bizarre law back then, you couldn’t get a drink at Easter or something like that. I remember because boy did I need one. I could get one on the Saturday when I met her and that’s when I had a pint of Guinness. And I went to the loo just after I’d met her and I turned to wash my hands and I saw a different face in the mirror, ahhh, a face I’d never seen before because I’d just seen somebody to whom I was related and it was all kind of a Stephen King moment to it.


00:19:46.14 Nicky Campbell:

But she was… the first thing she said to me, which kind of made complete sense later in my life, was after she sat down the first thing she said to me was, ‘Do you like dogs?’ And I thought at the time, what a bizarre thing to say but I actually think it’s a fantastic test of litmus of empathy now. I’ve come to understand that and I did understand it but it just took me aback what she’d said. But then it was just ‘I came over on the number on the number 42 bus, and then I made a sandwich, and then we did that, and I live in this place…’ and there was nothing, absolutely nothing. So who was… where was this woman?


00:20:21.15 Nicky Campbell:

And that’s the thing when she wanted to be my mummy and I was 29years old and it was like she was just stepping back in as if nothing had happened. She’d had no curiosity about my life, she had no curiosity about my family or my upbringing. It was just like erased at 29 years and it was almost like she was going to pick me up in swaddling and get me out of the… And we went around to her sheltered housing flat that night, she made me food, she was clucking around me, fussing around me as if this was the beginning.


00:20:55.02 Nicky Campbell:

Meanwhile, there at home at 105 Mayfield Road in Edinburgh, my mum and dad, beloved mum and dad who’d done everything for me, extraordinary people, just wonderful people, I don’t mean that glibly, I mean they were wonderful people, were sitting there the telly half on, looking at the clock, wondering how I was getting on. And it was just killing me, it was tearing me apart because you’re not meant to feel nothing. When you meet your birth mother you’re meant to have a kind of Railway Children moment. And I didn’t, I just felt nothing. And to feel nothing is crushing because you feel guilty about the fact that your real mummy and daddy, that you’ve been disloyal to them and you feel guilty and loads of self-loathing about the fact that you’ve met the woman who gave birth to you and feel zilch.


00:21:50.07 Andy Coulson:

So Long Lost Families, is that a theme that you see often? Is that a chain of events that kind of plays out even if it’s not on screen that you can recognise that pattern in the people that you’re talking to?


00:22:09.12 Nicky Campbell:

Not really because it’s self-selecting because these people are really desperate to do this. And I was… what’s the difference?


00:22:17.16 Andy Coulson:

I mean post-reunion really.


00:22:22.20 Nicky Campbell:

But I always think about Long Lost Family, it’s not about the future, it’s about the past. It’s about reconciling yourself with the past and slaking the curiosity and finding out what really happened and then you can move on. Then you get a more of a sense of yourself. But interestingly, that’s a really interesting question, looking at Long Lost Family because, and it’s just occurred to me, we have a pretty rigorous what is crudely called a psych test before people are accepted to take part. Because we have to check that they’re psychologically robust enough. There’s big stuff about this at the moment with the Love Island row and all those sort of reality shows and we are the gold standard on Long Lost Family. There’s a BBC show that’s just come out about DNA tracing and lots of people are saying, ‘we would never do that, we would never give them that news on camera’.


00:23:23.19 Andy Coulson:

But you must have been aware of the risks because you, when you first got involved in the programme, were acutely aware of what box you were taking the lid off potentially for people?


00:23:36.04 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, but I’d never have passed the psych test I don’t think and I don’t think Stella would have passed the psych test on that, at that particular time. Because it’s ‘why do you want to do this? Are you sure you want to do this?’ I think I might have scraped through but I don’t think… I think she was too kind of fragile. But it’s okay to feel nothing. I’ve said many times in the back of a cab on the way to a reunion, I’ve said, ‘How do you feel?’ They say ‘I don’t know how to feel’ I said, ‘Well it’s okay not to know how to feel, it’s okay to feel nothing, you just go with the flow of it.’


00:24:05.15 Nicky Campbell:

I do think it’s weird when people have just met and they’re calling their birth mother who’ve they’ve just met ‘mum’. That kind of makes me go, ‘ah, aha, ah’ it’s not… But then everyone’s different and some people who are doing that have not had a good childhood and adoption. Some people who are saying that say they’ve had a good adoption but I still feel there’s something in there that’s not quite right. And some people have had an amazing adoption, like me, but still want to put that final piece in the jigsaw puzzle.


00:24:41.09 Andy Coulson:

I mean, one of the themes of your book, obviously anchored around the love of animals but specifically the dogs that you’ve had in your life, Maxwell most importantly. And we’ll talk about Maxwell later, but your dog Candy played an incredibly important part in those early years of your life in Edinburgh. Just give us a flavour of how important that was. Almost in those kind of… you know you describe that birthday party in the years leading up to that point how important Candy was to you.


00:25:18.00 Nicky Campbell:

He was incredibly important to me. He was human-canine, human-dog. I was his dog-human, homo sapiens-canine. We were siblings, everything was about the two of us. I remember from the earliest age crawling around with him and sniffing and play fighting. We used to play fight on the shelf, on the sofa, just in front of the front window. and I remember play fighting one day, this woman coming up the garden path going, ‘Your child is being mauled by a dog!’ And I remember my mum saying, ‘Oh no, it’s fine, don’t worry, it’s fine.’ And we were just so close to each other and we loved each other that bond was incredible.


00:26:02.16 Nicky Campbell:

And we used to, I mean, I’ve told this story, but we used to sniff everything together when people arrived at the front door, Candy and I used to sniff them. And it was excruciatingly embarrassing for mum and dad because sometimes the sniffing was not really what you would want to sniff. And it was like ‘Down Candy, down Candy, down Nicky, down Nicky!’ So visitors were horrified by that. We were just like that. We were confrères, we were comrades, we were inseparable.


00:26:34.12 Nicky Campbell:

And so that time I came home and he wasn’t there and he’d been put to sleep was… I’d skipped off the bus and ran down the road from the bus stop and ran up the path and he wasn’t upstairs looking. Normally he’d see me and he’d run downstairs and greet me and meet me. And that moment, it will never leave me, coming in and mum saying that he’s been, ‘Candy’s dead, he’s been put to sleep.’ God, I can remember it. I can remember it; I can remember the physical feeling of desperation.


00:27:16.08 Nicky Campbell:

Now some people might say, ‘Oh come on’, but for me that first eleven years he was my protector. He made everything make sense and when I was with him everything made sense and I felt safe, he was my safe haven. And he was adopted too and I saw us as kind of as two… Obviously he was adopted, he wasn’t my mum’s natural child, but he was adopted, I saw it like he was adopted because he was a puppy next door. The academics next-door, their dog Judy has had a litter, she escaped one night and she came back pregnant. And so she was a thoroughbred Fox Terrier and he was what used to be called a mongrel, now it’s called a cross and he was just absolutely gorgeous. So that was a seminal moment in my life and it made me afraid of having a dog until things were really going…


00:28:16.16 Andy Coulson:

But you kept a photo of him on your desk throughout didn’t you? Is that right?


00:28:19.11 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, I’ve got one over there, I’ve got a photo of him up there.


00:28:22.12 Andy Coulson:

And you discovered much later that he wasn’t the first dog in your life. That when you were in that home that I mentioned in Edinburgh, before in those days before you were, those nine days before you were adopted, that there was a dog called Toby. And Toby would sit under your cot and simply wouldn’t leave you. I mean, listen, you passionately believe in the importance and the role that dogs play in our lives. I mean, how was that to find out? That must have been a…


00:28:59.12 Andy Coulson:

Well, Stella told me at the meeting and it was an incredible moment, and it was a bonding moment. There was a couple of bonding moments, there was a moment at that first meeting where she just turned into the woman she probably was before all the problems and before all the breakdowns. And she said, she leant back in her chair and sort of looked, her eyes caught and she looked with her head to one side as if to say, ‘oh this is weird, look where we are, look who it is, look what I am and look what’s happening.’ And there was a moment where I just saw a little vignette and she told me about Toby which was a highlight, apart from do you like dogs, I think she might have been leading onto that.


00:29:39.15 Nicky Campbell:

And Toby was a little collie cross who was in the boarding house where she had me in Portobello and Toby guarded me and growled if anyone came near me and was on my bed. And she was a matron at the hospital but I think all the rules and regulations and cleanliness had gone out the window and because she loved dogs so much. So he was… I would have got the smell of him and I would have been used to the presence of dogs and when I went he stayed at the window and whined after the nine days. And when I had my breakdown and I went to my psychiatrist, Stephen Pereira, I told him about that and he said, ‘Imprint, absolutely imprint from the earliest time and earliest… it would have absolutely impacted psychologically with you, that thing with dogs.’ So I mean, it’s not fanciful is it? It’s science.


00:30:31.13 Andy Coulson:

No, listen, it’s not fanciful, I fundamentally agree with you. I didn’t get my first dog until I was well into my thirties but I couldn’t agree more. Let’s fast forward if we can a bit, Nicky, to another moment of drama if you like, when you’re a teenager and your mum pulls you to one side and asks if any of the girls you know are adopted. Which is a hell of a question to get from your mum. And she tells you she’s asking you this because you have a sister who might well be living in Edinburgh. That Stella had had another child adopted by a different father. Tell me about that moment because it struck me reading the book that that was the next wave of crisis that led to another crisis, if you like. Is that how you reflect on it or not?


00:31:31.17 Nicky Campbell:

Well it’s amazing that you picked that up because I think it is an extraordinary moment in my life. You know, she’s stalking around outside, mum’s walking up and down outside my room. And I’ve kind of got my guitar and my poster of Olivia Newton John or whatever and the atom bomb exploding and the girl leaning over to pick up the tennis ball, all that stuff. And then she suddenly comes in and I know she’s nervous and she wasn’t to speak to me and then mentions… I think she told me before but I kind of swept it away because there’s always a lot to deal with. And I think she told me before and I was very resistant but she left leaflets in my room saying, if you ever want to trace and you’re adopted and this is… I was kind of ‘whoa, who am I? What are you doing?’ And so you kind of rail against it.


00:32:19.18 Nicky Campbell:

So she came in and she told me this and she said, ‘You’ve got a sister’ and I kind of thought do I know this? I think I do; I think I know this. But it was still a revelation, if you know what I mean, and she might have told me years, years and years ago and I’d just not focused on it or I’d forgotten it or I’d forgotten that I’d ever remembered it. And she said, any of your… because I was starting to see girls and getting the group together on a Friday and Saturday night… ‘…are any of your girlfriends adopted?’


00:32:50.23 Nicky Campbell:

And it was a very weighty and concerned question. And you think about it now and this is the whole issue with sperm donation isn’t it? Spreading the seed over many a county. It’s seriously, it’s worrying isn’t it, that situation? Because I went to this school called the Edinburgh Academy, famous alumni, Magnus Magnusson and Robert Louis Stevenson and St. George’s was the sister school and kind of all our of girlfriends came from St George’s and all our boyfriends came from the Edinburgh Academy, a disappointing gene pool as it were. But I said, ‘no’, well I had one friend who was adopted but she was younger than me. So I kind of thought, part of me thought, don’t be so ridiculous, why would I at sixteen have a seventeen and a half year girlfriend? What a ludicrous idea. But yeah, there was that. So she was very much aware of that.


00:33:59.05 Andy Coulson:

But in fact much later you discover that as a teenager you were in fact in the same house as your sister that you had a mutual friend.


00:34:13.05 Nicky Campbell:

They were big sister figures.


00:34:16.05 Andy Coulson:

The neither of you had a clue at the time, of course, incredible.


00:34:20.09 Nicky Campbell:

Slightly unreachable all the girls.  But when I met her Esther, she… we did the whole Edinburgh thing, ‘Who do you know, and oh yeah, they’re a friend…’ and she said one of her best friends was Julia Crightman. And I said, ‘Matt Crightman, he’s one of my best friends’ her little brother, he was in the year below me but Matt, I used to hang around with Matt. It’s funny because he was in the year below me but we used to hang around, even now, even now. But I used to hang around with Matt.


00:34:52.16 Nicky Campbell:

And she said, ‘Oh, I stayed with the Crightmans over one summer when my parents were away.’ And I said, ‘Which summer was that?’ And she said ‘Well it was 1978’ and I said, ‘Well we were around in the snug with the L-shaped sofa and the beanbags and telly and the smoking Benson & Hedges and kicking the shoes off and coming back from school watching the World Cup.’ I watched Archie Gemmill’s goal, I’m pretty sure in that particular room. And I was with Iain Glen, who went on to be in Game of Thrones and Matthew and I remember Julia and I remember Julia’s friend. And that was Esther.


00:35:34.03 Andy Coulson:

I mean, just…


00:35:35.04 Nicky Campbell:

And she remembers Matthew’s friend.


00:35:39.00 Andy Coulson:

Yeah, I mean just incredible. Despite this sort of, as I say, I keep referring to it as a very slow moving crisis, I hope that’s the right way to describe it, you succeed. You have a drive, a determination, a talent of course, and your rise in broadcasting and presenting is meteoric. From making hoax calls, as you describe it in the book, into local radio stations in phone-ins to your own show on Radio One, and Top of the Pops, it really seems like only a few years, I don’t know how many years it actually was. But it was pretty swift rise. Wheel of Fortune, huge television programme, other big jobs followed. Do you think this crisis, this undercurrent in your life gave you drive?


00:36:30.12 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, I think it did. You know that kind of ‘look at me, ma, I’m going to prove myself, I’m going to be someone. I’m going to make something of this, look who I am, look what I’ve done.’ And when I actually traced Stella, one of the things I was thinking was ‘god, she’s going to be so impressed with me because I’m on the telly’. I was pretty impressed with me so she’s going to be pretty impressed with me because I’m on the telly, on this show, four channel telly, Andy, you know fourteen million, ITV Monday night. That’s why people still say, ‘Oh you did Wheel of Fortune’ still.


00:37:13.15 Nicky Campbell:

And that was, yeah, I think it is it’s that drive, it’s that prove myself, it’s that I’m gonna take this bull by the horns and do stuff. Sometimes when I look at the old Top of the Pops and I look at the old Wheel of Fortunes on Challenge TV, I don’t do that routinely but occasionally I cast my eye on Top of the Pops because I get abusive texts on a Friday night saying ‘hated you then and I still hate you’ or ‘thanks for getting in touch’ or…


00:37:46.02 Andy Coulson:

Got to love Twitter, you’ve got to love Twitter.


00:37:48.03 Nicky Campbell:

Or nice ones saying, ‘god look at your hair!’ And I look at myself and I can that kind of mania sometimes. And it’s not just the studio mania of excitement. I can see a genuine manic thing going on. And you either like it or you don’t. And you know the kids ‘I hated you then and I hate you now’ I kind of think, well I’m half with you. I don’t really like myself very much either looking back.


00:38:15.23 Andy Coulson:

But you’re able, because you know we do have this conversation from totally different angles on this podcast, about the need to find the positive out of the crisis. So you do draw a line, obviously you’ve drawn the very clear, entirely legitimate line, between your crisis and the things that have gone wrong in your life and the problems that it has brought you. But you do also draw a line between the crisis and these positives. You do think that it fuelled you in a positive way in that regard?


00:38:52.04 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, yeah, it did, it gave me drive, it gave me ambition because I needed to prove myself because I didn’t really know who I was. So I needed to find out who I was and prove myself. Now, there’s a million people who’ve succeeded or done well in what they do who’d say, ‘Well why’s that different from me?’ But I think I had a particular bone that I wouldn’t get rid of. And it was pretty quick from doing local radio in 1983 to going to Capital Radio to going to Radio One, to going to Top of the Pops to going to the Wheel of Fortune in 1988. It was pretty quick. And of course, as you’re sort of swept through with that you do, to an extent, believe your own publicity and it’s quite intoxicating the whole thing. Because you’re only in your twenties, one is only in one’s twenties and all that’s going on. So it’s pretty heady. And it’s a distraction as well from all the other stuff.


00:39:52.14 Andy Coulson:

Yeah. So we’re going to fast forward again to 2013. The success has continued, Long Lost Family, you mention other programmes and by now you’re presenting the, and have been for a while, the Radio Five breakfast show. Everyday you’re helping the country, the nation to navigate the big issues of the day. You know, it’s a proper intellectual challenge that you’re meeting brilliantly but you’re doing it whilst unravelling. You’ve become depressed with manic obsessions, a pathological hatred of littering. Later a very worthy but entirely manic focus on animal welfare, specifically the plight of elephants that regularly leaves you in tears. How do you reflect on that, before Euston, which we’ll get to, how do you reflect on that period of time now? How were you coping and operating, in the midst of such an unravelling?


00:40:58.23 Nicky Campbell:

Well I think that when I look back at the kind of mania that I see on the screen sometimes on Top of the Pops and I see that person and I know what’s going on in that person’s mind, that was kind of aided to an extent by the high points of my bipolar but I was always having the low points, all my life. And I just didn’t realise… because mental health problems were what happened to other people. And I didn’t really… I just felt incredibly low, in bed for a couple of days, I just thought, ‘ach, it’s just the way I am and that’s a big message to people, you know, you needn’t be like that, you can deal with it.


00:41:34.03 Nicky Campbell:

But I did, by the time I got onto Five Live, and on the animal front I used to be here in my study for hours on end, every afternoon, Saturday afternoon, Sunday afternoon, looking at pictures. I wanted to save every animal on earth, crying, weeping, looking at the terrible things that are happening. It’s a terrible rabbit hole to go down. And Tina would say, ‘What are you doing?’, ‘I’m just working, I’m just working’ and I was up on my own in Salford in the flat in Salford which I have, where Five Live was based. And that was consuming me all day and every day and I was bursting into tears all over the place and I was sort of spiralling downwards but still I’ve got autopilot. And the autopilot just kicked in and I could do it, I could do it on autopilot. ‘We’re joined by David Cameron…’ you know? Go for it, you know. Written down the kind of stuff, I can act, I can do it, I can ask him the questions and then the interview’s over and then my partner does the interview and then I kind of drown again.


00:42:38.02 Andy Coulson:

Was it like that? It was job done…


00:42:41.08 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah. And I could interact and I could do that, yeah. I’m talking about the worst days, the worst mornings, I could do it. The best mornings I was kind of yeah, flying. So that’s kind of good, you know, that’s kind of easy. That kind of, it suits the role, it’s a job that suits the highs, very much. If I was only in the studio today and they’d bring people in and getting points, facilitating…


00:43:07.22 Andy Coulson:



00:43:08.21 Nicky Campbell:

Orchestrating is the word, debate. So that’s suitable you do things according to your talents and perhaps and abilities and perhaps your mental state as well. And that was really, really good, and that’s probably why I’m quite good at it, if I may say that. So it really was a case, one particular morning, I was looking at this story in the Bengal Times or the Indian Times and I think I put a note in the book that it was in the Kerala Forest but I looked it up and it was in West Bengal, and it was May, I think, or June 2013 and these little elephant had been hit by a train, they go through improbably, impossible and terrible speeds through the forest and a whole family of elephants had been hit and three or four of them had been taken out and sliced to pieces.


00:44:01.04 Nicky Campbell:

And there was this picture, or these set of pictures and it was just… it was like being pushed over the edge after everything I was fighting for. And I had meetings, I was in meetings in the Houses of Parliament trying to do something about ivory and part of that campaign and I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t because the desperation that nobody was doing anything and these wonderful sentient, intelligent, beautiful, sensitive creatures. And they were and the family had tried to get back and they were driven away by fire crackers. The family, the family thing. There was the matriarchic dead, the matriarch dead and the other families and the babies were trying to get back and they weren’t allowed to get back because they had to clear the tracks and it was just a grim and ghastly scene. You can google it it’s just ahh…


00:44:46.13 Nicky Campbell:

And so meanwhile I’m looking at that and then I’m going, Rachel’s going, ‘…and it’s ten to eight…’ and I’m going, ‘…and we’re joined now by the president of the society of motor manufacturers, good morning, let me ask you…’ So I’m slipping in and out, and meanwhile I was just dying. And I think perhaps the fact you have to put a lid on it makes it even worse when you don’t have to put a lid on it anymore. And so I walked to the station because I had to go up to Salford and so I was walking down to Euston, wended my way up Warren Street, all that up Great Portland Street and then up to Euston. I was just…


00:45:28.19 Andy Coulson:

Try and describe the feeling at that point. Just overwhelmed?


00:45:33.12 Nicky Campbell:

Mmm, yeah, it’s just that the whole world was falling in on me. And I eventually got to Euston, I said, ‘I can’t do anything, I can’t do anything, what’s the point? What is the point?’ And that’s the worst it ever got. What is the point? You know, we’re all just passing through, we’re here today, we’re gone tomorrow, you know, so what? And then I got to the bit of grass outside Euston Station, which is now a taxi rank but there used to be a bit of grass there you walked over, and I just flung my briefcase to one side and everything, money falling out and all sorts of stuff. And I’m just on the ground and I’m literally heaving and weeping. And that’s probably the moment when somebody walked by and said, ‘That’s the fella on the Wheel of Fortune’. But anyway, there I was and I was desperate, I had to bring in a note of levity there. And I…


00:46:42.19 Andy Coulson:

As I’m watching you, we’re recording this on Zoom, and I’m watching you sort of re-tell that story you’re feeling it again, aren’t you? You’ve not lost the memory of what it felt like?


00:46:58.00 Nicky Campbell:

No, you don’t.


00:46:59.05 Andy Coulson:

That moment of torment which is still with you.


00:47:01.19 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, it is and you don’t lose the moment of when you come home and your little dog’s dead, you don’t lose any of these moments. The moment that you’re in the restaurant and the cake comes and you feel you don’t deserve it; you never lose any of these moments. This was one of the most powerful moments in my life. And I rang home and Tina, who’d seen it coming, she knew it was bad, she knew I had something undiagnosed but it came to a head because I could put a lid on it and I could control and she knew I was manic, she knew I had obsessions and behaved in strange ways sometimes. Obsessions and depressions and she said, ‘Come home, come home to me, come home to the girls and come home to Maxwell’ because she knew how much that connection meant.


00:47:48.06 Nicky Campbell:

And so I went home. Because with a dog, with my Maxwell who I connect with so much you don’t have to explain you don’t have to articulate and put words together in a sentence. Because those that you love, with the best intention, and I would do it, say, ‘How are you feeling, what do you need, what can I get you? What would make you feel better? Do you want to go up to bed, do you want something to eat? Do you want a cup of tea or whatever? I tell you what, do you want a bath? Why don’t you have a bath? You’ll feel better if you have a bath.’ Because the minute somebody says that to you you’ve got to focus on why they’re asking you that question and they’re asking you that question because you’re feeling the way you are. And you don’t want to have that constant reminder because you don’t need to be constantly reminded because it’s killing you inside whereas…


00:48:37.11 Nicky Campbell:

(That’s my west Highland terrier in the background, one of them.) Whereas Maxwell, the dog, he understands, he doesn’t know that he understands but he understands because they’re on a different level. Like the wolf pack they have to know how every member of the wolf pack is functioning for the wolf pack to function properly and it’s all sense and they’re incredibly emotionally switched on animals. You don’t have to explain he just knows. And when he came up and he put his head on me and I heard his little tinkling collar and he leapt up on the bed and he put his paw on me and he put his head on my chest and it was like this amazing warm feeling of love and I know that he knew, I know that he knew that I needed help and that was a moment, it really was. It was an incredible moment.


00:49:32.06 Nicky Campbell:

And then Tina got me to see someone. I want to the GP and the GP said ‘See someone’ I’m in a very fortunate position that I could pay for that, you know. There’s many people, most people not able to get properly diagnosed, not able to get the right drugs. And I do feel that I’m incredibly lucky that that was the situation. And we had a few sessions and he had a bit of paper and we’d talk about everything. It’s quite difficult to talk about stuff like this but he said, ‘Imagine I’m not here, just talk, just talk, just talk.’ And he made lots of diagrams and lines pointing and we’d had a few sessions and he didn’t say much. He had lines pointing and he asked me a couple of questions and I thought you know, I thought, you’re good.


00:50:22.17 Nicky Campbell:

And then after about four weeks he said, before he came to his final diagnosis, ‘Do you have any mental health in the family?’ And I said ‘Well, no’ and then I said, ‘So my dad’s sister, I think was schizophrenic’ talking about my adopted mum and dad. And mum’s cousin Lizzie has had psychotic events or whatever and she’s not been well and then I thought, oh no, he said is there any history of bipolar in your family? And I went, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah family, yeah, my birth mother’s bipolar’ he went, ‘Yeah, yeah, that’s what… bipolar type one?’ Well I explained, I can’t remember what happened there but it emerged that I was bipolar type two and she was bipolar type one which is more severe, more extreme and that was a moment because it wasn’t a good thing, it wasn’t a bad thing it was just a meaningful thing, it was a connection. And it kind of took me to her.


00:51:49.20 Nicky Campbell:

And Esther, my birth half-sister who’s very clever and that’s why she finds Stella very, very difficult because Esther got a first in maths from St Andrews University. And who gets a first in maths? It’s ridiculous, it’s ridiculous, right, so she was very analytical and she did lots of research and she said that if you do have a bipolar condition it can be ameliorated, mitigated by a good upbringing and lots of love in the upbringing. And so maybe that was the case as well. But that was a moment so that’s basically it basically. And then I got the drugs which I take every night, sometimes I forget to take them and Tina says, ‘Have you taken your drugs?’ And I say, ‘Ah, no maybe I didn’t last night, maybe I didn’t’ so that’s it. That’s the story of the blues.


00:52:46.22 Andy Coulson:

And did you… at what point did you, because I understand that with type two in particular, environment can have an effect right? Your upbringing can have an effect negatively or positively, but obviously positively. And no doubt that the loving environment that you were passed into…


00:53:13.18 Nicky Campbell:

Saved me.


00:53:14.03 Andy Coulson:

…you know, had saved you, yeah. The ultimate positive, in a way, from a crisis.


00:53:23.08 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, yeah.


00:53:24.07 Andy Coulson:

They were caring for you in ways that perhaps they didn’t even realise and know.


00:53:29.20 Nicky Campbell:

That’s true. Yeah, that is true, that secure unit, family unit, which meant everything.


00:53:40.06 Andy Coulson:

Your mum and dad were amazing people. Your dad, as you describe in the book, bravely saw some horrors in World War Two and your mum played an important part in the D-day landings. And you’re…


00:53:54.06 Nicky Campbell:



00:53:54.09 Andy Coulson:

…not directly, but indirectly I should say. And your dad sadly died in 1996, I think and your mum very sadly died while you were writing the book aged 96. But I think I am right in saying that there was sort of nothing left unsaid in relation to what’s in the book, with mum, if I can ask such a personal question? It feels as though, you dedicated your book to her, it feels as though that was in some ways a really great process to be going through at that stage in your life and I think that stage in her life?


00:54:37.21 Nicky Campbell:

It was, we had lots of conversations as well. I’d say, ‘Do you remember Candy that day and this day?’ ‘And do you remember what age I was when that happened?’ And she was very excited about the book. She thought it was really interesting and she loved Maxwell and Maxwell absolutely adored her. And so she was a great source and a great solace and a great support as well throughout it. And it was at that time as well that I… Strange isn’t it? It’s the parallels, the twin-track again, it was at that time that I thought to eventually open the letters.


00:55:21.06 Nicky Campbell:

Because loads of letters had come from my birth mother and I just stopped. They were kind of illegible scrawls just like the phone calls which used to come late at night. ‘Lalalalallalala’ which is a bit hypocritical of me because I’m prone to ‘Lalalalallalala’ as well. But late at night and just at the wrong time and it was just a kind of senseless cascade of trivia and nothingness. Just white noise, nothing. That’s what Esther found so… ‘Whose my father, whose my father’ she took years to find out who her father is. That’s frustrating for anyone. She knows very well who her father and I had to find out who her father is through my birth father who happened to know him because they were both in the cops together. And so that’s the sort of brick walls that we were facing and nothing, nothing coming back.


00:56:19.13 Nicky Campbell:

And so I sat down one night and I had these letters that I’d never opened from her, still sealed in envelopes and I’d often thought about them and I’d felt uncomfortable about the fact that I hadn’t opened them and I’d come into her life which was a joyful thing for her and she was so pleased that we did, don’t get me wrong. And then I sat down and I poured myself a whisky and Maxwell was beside me and I opened the letters one night and read them all.


00:56:44.18 Nicky Campbell:

And there was stuff in there which… I deciphered them all and there was stuff in there which kind of made sense. There was one sentence she said, ‘Everyone who matters knows about you’ and that said so much about her life and that she had to be so guarded and sheltered and careful and it was just such a massive thing to admit that there had been this side to her life. This wild, frankly, sexual side, she was thirty-six and our fathers were both in their early twenties. Manic flights of excitement and…


00:57:20.05 Andy Coulson:

So similar story for both…


00:57:21.20 Nicky Campbell:

…abandon. Similar story for both, yeah cops and shifts and nurses. And so I opened this and I read them and it was lines and I remembered at our first meeting again, because I’d said in that hotel foyer in 1989, I said, ‘Well what are you hobbies?’ And she said, ‘Well I like literature’ and ‘I like William Butler Yeats and I enjoy; do you know The Wild Swans at Coole?’ And I said, ‘No, I know the one about the worst are full of passionate intensity and all that one, that’s a good one… The Second Coming, I don’t know any others really, everyone knows The Second Coming.’


00:58:10.06 Nicky Campbell:

And so I didn’t think about that poem. I’m literally sat on the sofa and I’m writing the book, obviously, so I want to know stuff and I want to find out stuff and I think I should because I’m right in my own head and have been for a long time. And I remembered this poem that she’d spoken about and I googled the poem and it was The Wild Swans at Coole and it was about fifty-nine swans. And this is the thing, fifty nine swans because one of the swans had flown, one of the swans had gone, one of the swans was missing and one of the swans would never return. And I just… that was…


00:58:49.24 Andy Coulson:

Wow, so like the question, ‘do you like dogs’, she’s sending you the subtlest of signals.


00:58:55.19 Nicky Campbell:

Kind of, yeah, from time yeah. She mentioned that within the first ten minutes of our meeting. Out of this morass of nonsense and trivia The Wild Swans at Coole and she said, ’That’s my favourite poem.’ It was just  a moment of…


00:59:15.02 Andy Coulson:



00:59:17.03 Nicky Campbell:

The profound, intelligent, sensitive woman that she once was and should have been. But I’m glad that she was the way she was.


00:59:26.18 Andy Coulson:

Well this is, you know, we all have a book with a happy ending and yours does have a happy ending but it’s got this kind of deeper element to it. You know, you talked several times, you’ve referenced several times the paradox that was sitting behind this, as tide as we’ve described it, and you through all these dramas and moments of real crisis, you finally resolve the paradox, if that’s the right way of putting it. That you conclude that life is complicated, there’s very little black and white in life, that most of it and most people sit somewhere in the grey. Including your birth mother, is that about right?


01:00:17.01 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, it is about right. Families are multifariously, many varied things, ever chaining forms. And just as you can say to somebody in the back of a cab as they’re about to meet their birth mother and they say ‘I don’t know how to feel, I don’t know how to feel’. It’s okay to say, ‘It’s okay that you don’t know how you feel’. And it’s okay to say that ‘You know what, it’s complicated, there’s no use in trying to simplify it, your birth mother gave birth to you and now you’ve come to some understanding of why she was the way she was’.


01:00:52.19 Nicky Campbell:

It’ll always stay with me the fact that I didn’t connect more but I couldn’t, there was nothing to connect with. And when I met Esther, it was a huge relief that she said the same thing. You know, there we were in the orphanage together and we felt the same. And my adoptive mum and dad are my real mum and dad and the siblings, there’s my sister Fiona. And there’s my kids and they’re amazing and Tina’s amazing. And so yeah, I come to some kind of making sense of it. You know, that’s where we get to.


01:01:31.03 Nicky Campbell:

And mum’s funeral was the last thing I wrote about and it was… if I can say, it was a joyful affair because people came from near and far to celebrate an extraordinary woman, a woman of warmth and wisdom. And she was a social worker and she lit up a room and she was a beautiful person. Not perfect, who is? No one is, I would be worried that she wasn’t the perfect birth mother of my imagination floating through the hallway of the Dublin hotel, like the Virgin Mary or the far-from Virgin Mary and then beatifying everybody but mum was amazing. She was bloody amazing and I was so lucky to be adopted by Frank and Sheila Campbell. I have, her funeral was great.


01:02:31.17 Nicky Campbell:

And just seeing my girls up there as well, they adored her, they adored granny Sheila and seeing my girls up there, Breagha read some Burns and Isla played her flute and Lella and Kirsty read poems and just to see their grief. I said it was joyful but it was a joyful day all in all. Because we had the grief and we had the tears, the ocean of tears and then we went, we had laughs as well. We had great laughs and great music and we came into the overture from The Sound of Music.


01:03:09.12 Nicky Campbell:

And I just remember 1976 being at home with the fire on and the world TV premier of the Sound of Music was on and I remember the smell of turkey and it was a big thing. Because we loved The Sound of Music in our family and there it was, it had started, Irwin Kostal production or whatever it was, that yellow writing over the… and then there she is on the hill. But the overture, there’s a bit in it, dum, dum, dum de dum dum, dum… that bit, I remember dad jingling the money in his pocket saying, ‘That’s a bloody good tune, that’s a bloody good tune.’ And so we played that and so I had all these amazing warm memories of that. And we had laughs and we had tears and then we went to a hotel and we all got pissed. Can’t do that anymore.


01:04:02.16 Andy Coulson:

Wonderful, you can’t do that anymore. Nicky, thank you so much for telling us your story, we really appreciate it and as I said at the start, I think it has lessons there for people who are going through all manner of difficulties in their lives. I’m going to finish, if I may, as we always do, by asking you for your crisis cures. Three things that you kind of lean on in the tricky times. It can’t be another person, I’m afraid that, I’m probably going to have to say that it can’t be Maxwell either because we’ve talked about him.


01:04:36.00 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, that’s right, can’t be a dog, can’t be a person, can’t be a being.


01:04:39.04 Andy Coulson:

It can’t be a being. So what comes to mind?


01:04:44.12 Nicky Campbell:

Well music-wise I’ve been a Beatle obsessive all my life, me and my record player and the Beatles singles when I was growing up. I fell in love with the Beatles when I heard… I picked up my sister’s cassette and there was this album called, With the Beatles, and I must have been twelve and if you think about it it’s not long after they split up. But you know, and I remember putting it on and hearing, ‘…close your eyes and I’ll kiss you…’ and I just fell in love with them. And then I just discovered and discovered and discovered and discovered and they just spoke to me and they still do. There’s a magic, it’s like the Sound of Music actually, a transcendent magic, greater than the sum of the parts about the Beatles.


01:05:26.10 Nicky Campbell:

And I remember Alan Freeman when I met him, who’s a dear man, when I met him at Capital Radio, and then I knew him at Radio One, he was a lovey man. And I remember him telling me the story once that he played the world premier spin of Hey Jude in 1968 on the radio. And he said, I said, ‘imagine pressing that button and you’re the first…’ and I said, ‘How did you do it, how did you do it?’ And he said, ‘Well it think we had to play it at five o’clock or something’ and so I was on for four hours so at two o’clock, three o’clock, four o’clock rock every hour and I said, ‘and coming up in two hours’ time, Hey Jude, don’t miss it that’s coming up at five…’ I said, ‘What a tease, what a tease! Hey Jude, oh my god, what’s this? Agh! It’s the new Beatles…’ The new Beatles single was like a thing. What a thing. And I love that song and I’m going to have it at my funeral, my kids can’t play Hey Jude now, they love the Beatles too, because they my funeral has kind of spoiled it.


01:06:37.19 Nicky Campbell:

And this is a terrible, terrible name drop but I was once interviewing Salman Rushdie, is it a name drop? Anyway I was once interviewing him and we were talking about the sixties and music and Hey Jude, ‘…the movement you need is on your shoulder’. And I remember he said, ’It doesn’t mean anything but it seems to mean everything’. And I thought, god that’s spot on and that’s the… John said, keep that, keep that bit, Paul, in the song. And it has a hymnal quality, I just find it incredibly moving. And you know that bit where they go ‘…so let it out and let it in’ it’s like the sun coming out that bit, it’s like a flowering, a belonging, a discovery of something amazing. So it would be Hey Jude.


01:07:27.05 Andy Coulson:

Very good, I need two others though.


01:07:31.03 Nicky Campbell:

That took up all of my time. A film…


01:07:37.24 Andy Coulson:

Anything, doesn’t matter whether it’s a film, whether it’s a place…


01:07:43.13 Nicky Campbell:

Well the place would be the Highlands. We took our holidays in the Highlands, the smell of the heather, the smell of the ferns, the burns and the fields and the farms and the midges and the rain, I just absolutely adored it. We had a cottage that they rented for the first kind of eight, nine years which didn’t have electricity, it had an outside loo. Then I think dad’s mum died and so they got a couple of thousand pounds and they got this other house and they did it up and I just adored it. And then I’ve got a place up in the Highlands as well, it’s where I feel happiest the western highlands, it’s just overwhelmingly spiritually beautiful.


01:08:29.09 Andy Coulson:

First port of call once we’re allowed to get back on the motorways and…?


01:08:33.05 Nicky Campbell:

Yeah, I love Ring of Bright Water as well and it’s Camusfearna in the book but it’s Sandaig in real life. And I go to a place very near there and I mentioned Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water in the book, maybe I’ll take that with me.


01:08:46.11 Andy Coulson:

Wonderful, well give me a film as well then, you’re only allowed one more.


01:08:50.12 Nicky Campbell:

Well I got a book.


01:08:51.22 Andy Coulson:



01:08:53.01 Nicky Campbell:

I got a book I thought about it and I did think earlier on when you told me about this that this would be the book. Because Richard Dawkins had that phrase the magic of reality that science is more marvellous, more spiritual, broadly speaking to use that word spiritually, inspiring, spine tinglingly amazing than anything in the scriptures. And I think I’ve really got into that and I’ve got into that whole idea of common ancestry that six million years ago, which is like that in the span of time, we share a common ancestor with the chimp. And you look at chimps now and you can see us. And I know primatologists and it’s just amazing. The first two years of a chimp’s life and a baby’s life they use all the same hand signals, I just think they’re… and orangutang, what’s happening to them is terrible but the greater, incredible… and that whole going back through the canyon of time and so I’d have On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin, I’d have with me.


01:10:07.12 Nicky Campbell:

Although evolutionary biology has moved on so much. He didn’t know about DNA, he didn’t know about genetics, he didn’t know about any of that stuff. So this is extraordinary, this book. His suppositions and his theories have all… you know nothing has been proven wrong. The thing he had a problem with was he didn’t think the earth was perhaps older than a hundred thousand years and what he had a real problem with was how this would all have happened in 100,000 years. Of course it all happened in four and a half billion years as we found out. And just the last paragraph in this I think is incredible.


01:10:40.06 Nicky Campbell:

And he uses the word creator here in a figurative way but you can take it any way you want and he talks about it. And I always send this to religious people and I said, ‘Who wrote that?’ And they say, ‘Oh I don’t know’ I said, ‘Charles Darwin.’ And they’re like, ‘Really?’ This bit here, ‘There is grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.’ I just love that. Charlie.


01:11:21.01 Andy Coulson:

Nicky, thank you so much for your time and for just telling us your story in such a powerful and such a frank and open way. It’s really appreciated, thank you.


01:11:33.21 Nicky Campbell:

Thank you very much for having me on and thank you for reading the book and for letting me, well asking me some great questions. Thanks Andy.


01:11:42.16 Andy Coulson:



01:11:42.20 Andy Coulson:

Nicky’s life, as I said throughout this interview, was until 2013 something of a slow moving crisis. He says himself that his adoption provided the drive and ambition that led to him being so successful. But it also laid the tracks for a darker, more difficult journey. A journey to discover his identity which ultimately led to the bipolar diagnosis he shares with his birth mother. Nicky’s such a thoughtful bloke you could almost feel him reliving those difficult moments as we spoke.


01:12:16.11 Andy Coulson:

And there’ve been many, perhaps most importantly the struggle to come to terms with the paradox of adoption as he calls it, that he wanted to belong with his birth mother but he didn’t want that to mean that he’d no longer belong with his mum and dad. Nicky’s analysis of that paradox and how he managed to resolve it, I thought carried wider lessons for anyone in crisis. As he puts it, ‘It’s okay not to know how to feel and it’s okay to feel nothing, to just go with the flow.’ It’s simple, it’s an approach I think we can all deploy from time to time.


01:12:49.09 Andy Coulson:

The dogs in Nicky’s life have clearly played an important part too. His love of animals runs so deep and has clearly given him incredible support over the years. We’ve heard from other guests about the role our pets play at times of crisis, his fellow broadcaster, Jennie Murray said the same. But Nicky believes passionately that our dogs in particular, show us how to handle crisis by living every day in the present, unencumbered and with constant enthusiasm, I couldn’t agree more.



01:13:17.13 Andy Coulson:

Thanks for listening to Crisis What Crisis? Feel free to send us your feedback, you’ll find our contact details and our show notes giving you the key insights from our guests at there are also links to our newsletter, Facebook page and Instagram. There are more useful conversations on the way soon and if you enjoyed this podcast please do give us a rating and a review, thanks again.


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