"If you weren't crying your eyes out by the end (...) then you have a heart made of frozen steel," wrote Guardian TV critic, Sam Wollaston, of Channel 4's documentary, Cutting Edge: The Homecoming.

The programme documented a woman's visit to a place from 30 years in her past: a children's home in Doncaster where she spent 15 months from the age of four, before going to live with foster parents in Scotland. Her aim was to trace the other children and find out where they ended up.

"It was quite a strange cross-section of roles," says the film's subject, Rachel Roberts, describing filming 'The Homecoming', which was broadcast on May 14.

Not least because Roberts is an experienced freelance journalist and, in fact, pitched the idea herself to the production company, North One, who eventually decided to make it with Channel 4.

News surrounding the Haut de la Garenne case in Jersey was the trigger, she explains. 

"I just started to think they [the children] might never have their voices heard. Once the idea took hold, I couldn't not do it - I had this opportunity as a journalist. 

"Because I'm positive I thought I'll find positive stories, but there was a dark patch, where I felt I was in very dark territory," she says, alluding to some of the sadder and more personal stories that emerged in the film, which can be viewed on 4OnDemand until June 13.

Roberts had 'vague whispers' about her past in the back of her mind, but put off any proper investigation until she felt secure in her own situation.

She felt she was now at a point where she was 'settled enough in my own life to go and look at these things': "It's an age-thing; I'm 38 now."

She is adamant is wasn't a 'journey' of self-discovery and urges me to not to repeat the phrase.

"To begin with, to manage my emotions on camera I told myself I was approaching it as a journalist, but then the stories became so much bigger than that - a personal story," she says.

Journey or no journey, there are some deeply personal moments in the film, for example, where she reads her social services record for the first time, and discovers the existence of six half-siblings she never knew about; one of whom she meets for the first time, by chance, on camera.

"Everything had to be authentic. My director [Shona Thompson] had a huge amount of integrity.

"If the cameras weren't on me I would go and check my file - that's the first thing I did," Roberts says, adding that Thompson never forced her do anything she wasn't comfortable with.

Film accuracy
Roberts is pleased with the outcome of the film - 'I was so happy when I saw the final cut' - and with the television reviews and the features she wrote, including pieces for the Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror.

Roberts was naturally wary, given her own background: "I know because I'm on the other side: I've subbed for these magazines. That's why I insisted on writing my own features," she says.

She is less happy with her treatment by one 'unnamed' newspaper magazine. The account she gave them 'wasn't sensational enough'.

"They wouldn't run it. I wrote a 2,000-word feature, we did a [photo] shoot," she says. One of the editors pressured her to alter the line, by asking 'have you always felt a piece of you was missing?' Roberts response: "If I felt that I would have written that. No." 
"It's not black and white," she says of her story. Despite Channel 4's extremely sensitive handling of the material, Roberts says there were a couple of things in the voiceover which 'labelled people'. That's why she negotiated to have a say in the final cut.

Sense of responsibility
Roberts feels responsible for the other people in the film and also members of her family affected by its making, she says.

"I'm quite media savvy so I know what the impact can be  - even though not one single person was coerced to be in the film, I felt responsible."

When we meet after the film's first airing, she's just come off the phone from talking to her brother and has spent the previous week 'checking in' with various participants.

"I sat and wrote thank you cards yesterday - it was incredibly brave of them all to take part in the film," she says. 

Her sister, Jenny [who was in the same children's home] did not want to feature in the film, but Roberts said she felt her sister had been there with her, all the same. 

"Her emotional well-being was hugely important to me. She was seeing it [events] second-hand. She got her head round it and we've become closer through it."

Roberts also found herself dealing with a sense of 'survivors' guilt' - that her life has turned out well while many of the others from the same children's home have had more complicated lives. It really affected her, she says, when she learned - during the course of the film - that she is in the one per cent of children with a background in care who go onto higher education.

She hopes, however, that her personal success will encourage children in care to have higher career and educational aspirations. Even if one child in care saw the film and felt inspired to succeed despite their circumstances, that would be enough for her, she says.

Impact on her own journalism

Her role in the film was journalistic, but undefined, she says: "I was definitely not the presenter.

"I had to be careful. As a journalist I would go into journalist mode, and want to know everything when they'd [the other participants] start telling me the stories.

"My director would say - 'there's an element of that, but it's your personal story'," Roberts describes.

Given her dislike of the notion of a 'journey', Roberts would probably abhor any reference to 'closure', but creating this film seems to have closed at least one chapter for her, even if it's opened up several more with the new relationships formed.

She describes banging out the final feature for the Sunday Telegraph in the Brighton office and feeling a sense of relief that it was done.

"When I saw the final cut I cried for the whole 50 minutes because it's so personal. A film like that acts like a mirror. You get things mirrored back at you that you weren't expecting," she says.

Such as? "Vulnerability. I've spent my whole life trying to hide it, and it's there on camera and nowhere for me to hide from it. But I'm philosophical about these things: it's the truth and there's nothing wrong with the truth."

As to what's next, she's cautious: maybe a book, maybe not; definitely nothing that misrepresents her story.

A friend texted her after the film's airing and suggested her 'fortune would be made' if she wrote a 'misery lit' style memoir. "No, no, no! I don't want to be some weird poster girl for misery," was Roberts' reaction.

"I don't know where it's going to take me," she says, but adds that it will undoubtedly change her journalistic direction.

"I think if I'm honest - seven or eight years ago, I would do any commission. I'm looking a bit more closely at the different newspapers and who I do, and don't want to work for."

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