At first glance, air hostess and lingerie model Danielle Lineker must seem like an archetypal WAG, even if the playing days of her husband, England legend turned Match of the Day host Gary Lineker, are long behind him. There's the lavish wedding (£250,000 was the reported cost) on the Amalfi Coast, the Surrey mansion and the designer frocks. "The press love the rags to riches thing," she says. "I was doing property before I met Gary and was actually doing okay, but the story is that I came from Wales and I was a single mum. Some of these newspapers just love getting their claws out."
And the second Mrs Lineker has a rueful distrust of a Fourth Estate seemingly fixated on the 19-year age gap between herself and her husband, as well as a somewhat partisan attitude towards Gary's first wife, "childhood sweetheart" Michelle – a wariness that has made it somewhat difficult for her to promote her BBC3 programme about stepfamilies (The Independent was the only newspaper she agreed to talk to). For Lineker is herself the product of a stepfamily, as is her daughter Ella (whose father is the former Coventry City footballer Adam Willis) – while the 31-year-old is now a stepmother to Gary and Michelle's four teenage boys, George, Harry, Tobias and Angus.
"When I met Gary I thought that there was not really much around to help ... hardly any books or websites," she says of her motivation for making Danielle Lineker – My New Stepfamily. "And we don't talk about it in stepfamilies – we just get on with it – and we do need to talk about it, because so many people now – even Prince William and Harry – are in one. Ideally, nobody wants to be part of a stepfamily. You'd have to be a fool to think you're going to walk into a family and it's all going to work. Life isn't like that."
And Lineker (née Bux) should know. Her parents, shop workers Kim and Roy, separated when she was a baby. When she was seven, her mother remarried factory worker Alex Mohammed, with whom she had three children. In her BBC3 film Lineker revisits her old homes on the tough Ely estate in Cardiff – homes, plural, because like most stepchildren, Lineker was forever commuting between her divorced parents.
"When I was at school, if a teacher said 'draw your family', I would draw my mum, my stepdad, brothers and sisters, my dad and his children as well," she says. "I would need a big double page. Everyone else had one sheet of paper. But it didn't bother me. I never saw it as weird or different."
Indeed being in a stepfamily today is anything but weird and different – it's the fastest-growing domestic arrangement in Britain, and statistics vary between the official estimate (that between one in eight and one in 10 of us are now so defined), and the figure used in Lineker's film, of one in three. "It's a far more widespread situation than official figures show," says Suzie Hayman, the author of books on the subject. "What tend to get counted are families where children are resident, but what you should be saying is that one in three families in this country is affected by stepfamily issues."
And what issues they are. For Danielle Lineker, the most pressing one was knowing what sort of role she was to take with her four stepsons, the oldest of whom, George, was just 12 years younger than her. George had helped his technophobe father to Google Danielle when a blind date was mooted by a mutual friend – and found pictures of Danielle posing in her underwear. (Is there such a thing as a step-Oedipal complex? Understandably the film doesn't go there.)
"It's a massive shock to go from being a single mum to having four teenage boys," says Lineker. "I want to be their friend, but with boys it's harder to be on a level with them, especially as a woman, and as a younger woman. And there are times when I want to tell them off, but I don't want to cross that line so they then think, 'Silly cow, telling me off for not putting my trainers away.' It's been a learning curve but now I realise I'm an older person who can be a mediator. It's a bit like being a big sister. Being young, the fun part is easy. Having to be the adult is not so easy. I still don't want to seem like the wicked stepmum."
George (facially, and in his mannerisms, a dead ringer for Gary) was the only son who takes part in the filming, being 18 and able to give his consent, while Ella, eight, seen enjoying some relaxed horseplay with her new stepfather, also makes an appearance, her father having agreed to her participation. "With a stepfamily there are so many people involved, nothing's simple," says Danielle, who is acutely aware of upsetting any of her clan.
It is an intensely personal documentary for a woman more used to nothing more intrusive than being papped alongside Gary on the beach. "About halfway through [the filming] I had a bit of a wobble. TV channels always want a bit more than you're willing to give, and I did feel a bit, 'What am I doing? Have I done the right thing?' This is all personal, but I didn't want to let down the other people involved in the film. There are so many negative stories about stepfamilies I just wanted people to see that you can work things out."
Because Lineker's parents divorced when she was a baby, she was spared the trauma older children might experience, and she thought it important to speak to some of those who had been through the intense pain of watching their mother and father separate. "You just keep your mouth shut because you don't want to cause any more trouble," a girl, Lauren, older and wiser than her 12 years, tells Lineker. "We, as kids, have a camouflaging system, we look okay on the outside, but on the inside we'll feel absolutely rubbish."
At least this is not a burden of guilt that Lineker feels she has to carry. "With Gary's kids they'd had, I think, about three years of their mum and dad separating – they'd really had time to get their heads around what was happening, where some of the families we'd met, their parents had got divorced and a couple of months later they were with someone else. That's what's difficult."
Her film documents one rather forced attempt at bonding between Danielle and the perpetually embarrassed George, as they take a day out together racing cars at Brands Hatch ("It was the BBC who wanted us to go do that," she says) and one more spontaneous expedition when, after their return flight from an Easter holiday in Tenerife fell victim to the volcanic ash cloud, the family endured a cramped car journey back from Madrid.
Cue some good-humoured joshing about smelly feet, although both Danielle and Gary seem acutely aware of the serious price of failing to create one big happy stepfamily. "I'd like to love them like my own kids and that's something you build towards, but it's difficult. If the stepfamily doesn't work, the whole thing breaks down, there's no relationship any more," says Danielle in the film.
"It would put a real wedge in there and make it almost unworkable," agrees Gary, although such a glum prognosis seems not to be anticipated in this case, the couple getting hitched last September in Italy. "Getting married gives the kids the message that we're in a proper relationship," says Danielle. "I'm not just here for six months, then I might just bugger off tomorrow. They know that's not going to happen." But, then, as she also says in the film: "You never really know what they are thinking."
Danielle Lineker – My New Stepfamily, BBC3, tonight, 9pm
FIVE GOLDEN RULES FOR STEP-PARENTS
* Don't try and be a substitute for the missing parent. "Even if the other parent is dead," says Suzie Hayman, agony aunt and author of Teach Yourself: Successful Step-Parenting. "For example with my own stepson I tell him that he's my son, but I'm not his mother. I'm not a substitute, I'm something extra."
* Ensure your stepchildren remain in contact with both parents if possible – by text and email if necessary. "Don't feel as a step-parent that your good relationship with these children is based on their not having a good relationship with their missing parent," says Suzie Hayman. "I think it's actually the other way round."
* Don't bad-mouth your ex. "Apart from anything else you are going to make your children feel very confused and split if you do," says Hayman. "They are half and half – and while they may not think of it in terms of genes, they do know."
* Make sure your children know that none of this is their fault. "Children really feel that they are the centre of the universe and therefore everything that happens is because of something they did or didn't do," says Hayman. "They will lie awake at night thinking 'What can I have done?' and when people feel that guilty they start playing up."
* Be firm but fair. "One of the things I always recommend is what you set about to do is to create house rules. The idea is that if it's a house rule, every adult can pull you up on it and so you don't get the 'you can't tell me what to do because you're not my mum'. Equally, adults can be told off too."