For 50 years, Philomena Lee kept a secret to herself – then the entire world got to hear about it.

Originally from Limerick, the retired nurse now lives an inauspicious life in the south of England, close to her daughter Jane, son Kevin and her grandchildren. Keeping her family nearby is important to Philomena, as her history is one of loss, abandonment and forced adoption.

Losing her mother aged six, and consequently split up from her three brothers and sent to a convent along with her two sisters by her father, Philomena emerged in 1952 as a naïve 18-year-old and went to live an aunt.

After a liaison with a man at a country fair she became pregnant, and was ostracised by her family out of shame and sent back to a convent in Roscrea, County Tipperary.

Fallen women

In compensation, she was made to work in the laundry along with other so-called 'fallen women' and was only allowed access to her young son, Anthony, for an hour a day. When he was only three Anthony was taken from the convent against her will; the nuns at Roscrea had agreed to sell him for adoption to an American family.

She left the convent and made a new life for herself in England, marrying a fellow nurse and having two more children. She never let on about their half-brother until Anthony’s 50th birthday.

The resultant search for Anthony, which reached the top level of the White House, was turned into a Bafta-winning and Oscar-nominated film, with the role of Philomena played by Dame Judi Dench.

“When I heard that Judi Dench was interested in playing me, I was absolutely thrilled,” laughed Philomena, now aged 84 and remarkably free of bitterness given her ordeal. “I loved her in As Time Goes By.”

Enter Tony Blair's spin doctor

The journey from secret revelation to Oscar night began when a mutual friend put Jane in contact with journalist Martin Sixsmith.

At a loose end after having just been forced to resign from his position as one of Tony Blair’s spin doctors, he reluctantly (at first) took up the story.

“I’ve done many things in my life – worked for the government, worked for the BBC, been a historian – this was something I hadn’t done before: a human interest story,” he recalled.

“The more Philomena and I worked together, the more I thought it was worthwhile. It was a detective story but my first responsibility was to help Philomena find her son.”

Despite a refusal by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary to help (even though they knew exactly where Anthony was), Martin discovered he’d been adopted by a professional couple from Missouri. His name had been changed to Michael Hess and he’d become a successful lawyer and member of the Republican party. He’d advised Ronald Reagan and when George Bush Senior became President, was appointed as his chief legal counsel. But Michael always knew he’d been adopted and, from 1977, had made frequent trips to Ireland and the Sean Ross Abbey convent, now a school for the disabled, hoping to find his birth mother.

Steve Coogan

Angry at her treatment at the hands of the Catholic Church, Martin turned her story into a book, The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, which attracted the interest of Steve Coogan. Although known for his comedy, the Catholic Coogan has always had an interest in adoption stories as his parents have acted as foster parents to orphaned and abandoned children for much of his life.

“I didn’t know much about him, I don’t really follow comedians,” Philomena said of the Alan Partridge star. “When we met him at Martin’s house he was such a gentleman but I’d got him mixed up with Rob Brydon!”

Coogan wrote a script with Jeff Pope, who won a Bafta in 2007 for TV drama See No Evil: The Moors Murders as well as penning the recent ITV drama about the murder of Rhys Jones, and cast himself in Sixsmith’s role.

Then he contacted Judi Dench.

“He came and read it to me and I immediately wanted to do it,” remembered the Mrs Brown star. “The only thing that concerned me was playing a real-life person, and somebody who is still alive. I felt the responsibility to tell Philomena’s story very heavily on my shoulders. We must not sell her short.

“When we had the wrap party we were sitting all around and I was talking to Philomena when they interrupted proceedings to show us a clip of the film.

“They showed a scene of Anthony as a little boy and I was aware of this hand being placed on my shoulder. `Oh look at him’ she said. Her passion for the boy really is inspiring. Every time I have spoken to her she has said how much she loved Anthony.”

Philomena is on BBC2, Saturday at 9pm