As Call the Midwife celebrates a decade of warming our hearts, Stephen McGann – aka Dr Patrick Turner – examines its enduring appeal*, while cast and crew give us a peek behind the scenes.
Where it began (from left): newly qualified midwife Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) joins Trixie Franklin (Helen George) and Cynthia Miller (Bryony Hannah) in series one
Call the Midwife? That’s just about babies being born, isn’t it?’
I still get that from members of the public who’ve never watched the programme. Those who have know that Call the Midwife is about a great deal more than that! The remark makes me smile– the assumption that being the first drama to represent the universal human experience of childbirth on pre-watershed television is somehow an achievement so trivial it deserves the word ‘just’ in front of it!
Call the Midwife was never a ‘big’ drama. Its virtue doesn’t lie in a cavalier swagger or lavish self-confidence. It comes from something far more enduring. Quiet compassion. An unshakeable humanity. Absolute sincerity. An ability to reach out of the TV screen and grasp the hearts and minds of the viewers, week in, week out.
It’s funny to recall a time when I’d never heard the phrase ‘Call the Midwife’. The show’s producer, Pippa Harris, sent my partner, the screenwriter Heidi [Thomas], a copy of Jennifer Worth’s bestselling book to read with a view to adapting it for television.
‘You know, I think I might be able to do something with this…’ Heidi mused.
She was right, of course. And over the past decade the results have been watched all over the world. We first aired in January 2012 and by the second episode the viewing figures were so big that the BBC recommissioned it immediately. Our brave, fierce, gentle, tough little show was a great big hit. And no one saw it coming.
The supposed ‘woman’s world’ of childbirth had spent years in the shadows of TV drama, reduced to a few panting seconds in the service of more masculine plotlines. The medical women in Jennifer’s stories were hardened by experience yet devoted to the care of those who endured lives of invisibility, indifference, pain and shame with phenomenal stoicism. If the experience of childbirth as a springboard for wider life drama was ever going to get the attention it deserved, it would be by telling their unheard stories with respect.
I think Call the Midwife makes people cry every week because it makes Heidi cry when she writes it. It makes us actors cry when we play it. It’s celebrating its tenth anniversary because those of us involved with it absolutely mean what we do. We’re as much members of the audience as our viewers.
Ultimately, these stories are about all of us – what we all have in common, and how we might care a bit better for each other.
‘Series two began with Laura Main and I playing a religious sister and a widowed doctor with son Timothy [Max Macmillan],’ says Stephen, ‘but our characters ended in a love that led to wedding bells’
Midwife Lucille (Leonie Elliott) helps deliver the baby of an unmarried teenage mother. The show has famously never shied away from difficult, topical storylines and social issues. ‘We work hard to make childbirth look as realistic as possible so we need babies only a few days old,’ says midwifery adviser Terri Coates. ‘I make sure everything is clean, warm and safe’
‘In 1964 Biba had a pink gingham dress which was a galloping success,’ says costume designer Claire Lynch. ‘So we re-created it for Valerie (Jennifer Kirby) to wear [above, far right, with, from left, Helen George, Fenella Woolgar and Leonie Elliott]. The actresses’ underwear is also important because it has such an effect on people’s outline. Luckily, the 1960s Gossard bra was very much the same shape as a modern-day M&S T-shirt bra’
‘Filming in South Africa for the 2016 Christmas special was extraordinary,’ says Jenny Agutter, pictured centre right with, from left, Laura Main, Helen George, Victoria Yeates, Charlotte Ritchie and Stephen McGann. ‘When we were moving between locations we were asked if we wanted to go in one of the official cars. We all said, “No, we want to stay in the truck!”’
‘The programme is so popular because you see a group of women who all get on,’ says Emerald Fennell (pictured left). ‘It shows friendships like ones we have’. Playing Patsy Mount was Emerald’s big break: she’s since gone on to win an Oscar for her film Promising Young Woman
Sister Julienne and nurse Phyllis Crane (played by Jenny Agutter and Linda Bassett) push a car in a scene set in the 1963 Big Freeze. ‘Call the Midwife is a period drama that takes place in recent history– for many people, it’s their own past,’ says Stephen McGann. ‘Series seven provided us with a historical event that would certainly have impacted on the midwives working in early 1963. The Big Freeze was a period of brutal Arctic weather that affected the whole of Great Britain for two months, blocking roads with snowdrifts and cutting off whole communities. Filming our Big Freeze involved building up large pretend snow mounds on the street then covering everything with a specialist fake snow material that looks absolutely authentic but smells strangely of burnt paper!’
An overcrowded love scene, featuring Reverend Tom Hereward and Trixie. Their characters’ romance was ill-fated but the pair fell in love in real life. ‘I married Barbara [Charlotte Ritchie] in the show but Helen [who played Trixie] and I started going out together,’ says Jack Ashton, who played Rev Tom.
*This is an edited extract from Call the Midwife: A Labour of Love (Weidenfeld& Nicolson, £20).
LAURENCE CENDROWICZ, JONATHAN FORD, NICKY JOHNSTON, DES WILLIE. NEAL STREET PRODUCTIONS.