Fiona Phillips: 'I don't know how families cope when someone goes missing'
“How often do we shout at our children to tidy their rooms or get a job,” says broadcaster Fiona Phillips, “and then remember how lucky we are to have them?
“I can drive myself mad over the most trivial things before I think there must be parents all over the country who’d give anything to walk into a smelly bedroom or see muddy laundry piled up. Especially at Christmas. Can there be a worse time to have a member of the family missing and not knowing where they are?”
Phillips, 56, would be the first to count her blessings; at home in south London, she and TV producer husband Martin Frizell are still picking up after their teenage sons.
“Your child is part of you,” she adds, looking out of the café window at a London street packed with Christmas shoppers dashing in and out of festive shops, arms full of presents. “It would be a visceral pain to lose them inexplicably.”
Phillips has certainly encountered more of that acute loss than most through her work. Her career as a broadcaster – which began in local radio and BBC South East, before she moved to Sky News and then joined GMTV in 1993, where she became the main anchor from 1997 to 2008 – has brought her into contact with families caught up in the most harrowing stories of disappearing children.
Your child is part of you. It would be a visceral pain to lose them inexplicably
She knows the Lawrence family – whose daughter Claudia, 35, went missing in York in March 2009 – and the Boxalls, whose 15-year-old son Lee vanished in Sutton in September 1988. And she has met and interviewed Gerry and Kate, the parents of Madeleine McCann, on many occasions.
“They are all so lovely but even when they smile, you can see the hurt in their eyes. They are choked up with grief and by the lack of closure. I do wonder how they carry on, but I know they just have to.”
For Phillips, that ability to empathise led her to support the charity Missing People, one of this year’s Telegraph Christmas charities, which offers a lifeline to those with missing friends or relatives, providing 24/7 family support, organising appeals, and driving policy and legislation campaigns. Based in East Sheen, the charity, she says, is incredibly lean. “It is still in the same small office above a supermarket, 20 years after I first became involved.”
That interest may have been initially sparked by a wider concern for humanity – Phillips is an ambassador for the Alzheimer’s Society, Age UK and Missing People. But she also knows what it feels like when a loved one is missing – even if temporarily. “Both my parents had Alzheimer’s disease,” she says. “Mum was diagnosed with it first in 2003, after five or six years of erratic behaviour. Then not longer after she died in 2006, we realised something was seriously wrong with my father too.”
In both cases, her parents Amy and Neville went missing or wandering at various times, a problem which is far from unusual, says Phillips. According to a report by Missing People together with the University of Portsmouth and the University of Edinburgh, UK police respond to 15,000 incidents every year when someone aged over 60 goes missing. The figure is likely to be the tip of the iceberg, says the charity.
Moreover, the report found that those who find themselves caring for someone with dementia are not warned of the risk of wandering, or what to do, with many admitting they felt embarrassed to “waste” police time in these cases.
The first time Amy went missing, she had not been diagnosed yet with early-onset Alzheimer’s.
“It was a frightening time,” Phillips says. “She was clearly unwell and crying all the time. Depression had been suggested and she was on strong anti-depressants. I felt like she was disappearing before my eyes.”
Phillips’s parents lived in Haverfordwest at the time, and she would encourage Amy to come and stay in London and treat her to having her hair done.
“One day, I left her in there and went off to do some shopping, warning the staff not to let her leave until I returned. But when I came back she had disappeared. I remember rushing up and down the high street looking for her. It was awful, I thought I would never find her.”
When Phillips caught sight of her mother, “she was standing on her own, crying and smiling and waving. I was so relieved. But it gave me a taste of that panic.”
After her mother had died, Phillips and her two brothers had been surprised by Neville’s lack of emotional reaction. When the family solicitor warned them that he could no longer remember his address, they realised he too was now ill.
“I wanted to move him into sheltered accommodation near me, but I was so frightened that if he wandered off into London I would never find him.”
Instead like many caught in the sandwich generation, Phillips found herself driving across country to support him, with her two young children in the back of the car. It was about this time she resigned from GMTV, exhuasted by being pulled in too many directions.
“It was a massive decision,” she says, “but I have no regrets. Actually, I do feel I could have given it up sooner and spent more time with my mum.”
Phillips arranged for Neville to live closer, finding him a flat in Southsea, Hampshire, from where he did at times disappear.
“The last time he wandered away he was missing for eight hours. The police found him in a casino at 3 o’clock in the morning in his pyjamas and no shoes. It was winter – he could have frozen to death. It was terribly worrying. But the police were amazing.”
Phillips’s father died in 2012, but she says there are still nights when she wakes up haunted by whether she made the right decisions during those tough years.
“I’ve never been interested in doing the celebrity-type shows but I did accept an invitation to do Strictly Come Dancing in 2005. I should never have done it. I was too tired and too emotional, worrying about mum. Brendan [Cole, one of the show’s professional dancers] was a hard taskmaster and I was awful.”
She adds: “That is the thing about Alzheimer’s – you never feel you have done enough.”
That sense of “unextinguished pain” connects her back to those for whom closure will never come. “Pain lessens as the years go by, I don’t doubt. But that love you feel for someone close burns on and on and on. I don’t know how families where someone goes missing cope. It must create a huge hole. And at the same time, parents have the added guilt of worrying that they are not supporting the rest of the family like siblings, who may get sidelined.”
This time of year is hardest, not least, she says as the idea that a happy Christmas is one full of family. “Those bloody adverts – the tables groaning with food and masses of family and friends. Yet for so many people, the one person they would love to see will not be there.”
Missing People is a beneficiary of this year’s Telegraph’s Christmas Charity Appeal. To make a donation to this or one of the other charities supported in our appeal, please call 0151 284 1927, visit telegraph.co.uk/charity