Saved by a Stranger review – moving stories of reunion and healing

If anyone is left with lingering feelings of misanthropy after another shameless week in British politics, then I can recommend Saved by a Stranger (BBC Two) as a wonderful antidote. This brand new series, hosted by Anita Rani, is an elegant hybrid of ITV’s Long Lost Family, BBC One’s Who Do You Think You Are? and Radio 4’s The Reunion, and it shows the best of human nature, often emerging from the ruins of the worst of it. The series tells the stories of people caught up in the biggest events in recent history, and attempts to reunite them with a figure they believe helped save their lives.

The opening episode skilfully weaves together two very different, very moving stories. Karl was a 23-year-old dancer when he got on a packed tube train at King’s Cross station in 2005. A bomb exploded in his carriage just moments after the train left the platform. Rani carefully lets Karl tell her what happened that morning. Reliving it, 15 years on, is clearly traumatic for him and his meticulous account of the event gave me goosebumps. He tells it bravely and beautifully, from the odd, irrational acts that can happen during moments of great shock – after the explosion, he asked if anyone had seen his iPod – to the complexities of survivor’s guilt. He was only four or five seats away from where the bomb detonated, and 26 people died in his carriage. He walked out of Warren Street station uninjured, although not unscathed.

Karl explains that he got in touch with the programme-makers because he wants to find the woman who held his hand in the dark and dust, who told him that they were going to be OK. This is a raw and honest portrayal of trauma. He wants to find her out of gratitude, and he wants to find her out of guilt; he has held with him for years a worry that he pushed her out of the way when they were evacuated from the carriage. “That’s been something that I’ve really struggled to deal with,” he says.

The second story belongs to Emina and her family, who now live in Birmingham, but were evacuated from war-torn Sarajevo in 1991. Emina was four at the time, and her sister Edina, who has Down’s syndrome, had just been born. There was little support for children with Down’s in Bosnia then; Edina’s mother had not heard of it, and had no idea whether her daughter would live beyond a few weeks. A paediatric doctor, Natasa Savic, offered the family support and advice, and during the bloody conflict – when living in Sarajevo was, as Emina explains, “like living in hell” – Savic put the family on an evacuation list for medical evacuees. After 27 years, Emina wants to find Savic, to thank her for changing all of their lives. Edina would like to thank her, too.

Rani’s job in both cases is to facilitate delicate conversations, and she does so with skill and empathy. But she also serves as an investigator, digging through documents and news reports to try to track down these people. In Emina’s case, they travel to Sarajevo, to walk the streets and speak to people who may have worked with or encountered Savic. I do not want to spoil the ending, but truly, it is a tearjerker. In Karl’s case, the path is less straightforward. Without a name, without a face, and with only a 15-year-old memory forged in a hellish situation, it proves more tricky to find the woman with whom he held hands during that terrible time. Even so, the resolution is no less affecting.

In fact, Saved by a Stranger is profoundly affecting, in all sorts of ways. It demonstrates people at their very best, and shows we are capable of offering and accepting moments of kindness and humanity in unimaginably horrific situations. In both of these stories, there are mere moments or metres separating what did happen from what might have been; both Karl and Emina are acutely aware of those tiny twists of fate.

The programme is also a smart and sensitive examination of trauma, and how that can change over time. Karl never contacted other survivors of the 7/7 attacks, but over the course of his investigation here, he learns that, perhaps, meeting other people from that day may offer an unexpected form of solace. Both Karl and Edina are seeking a person. They are also seeking something far bigger, and you desperately hope that they will find it.

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