Delivering Call the Midwife
Call the Midwife creator Heidi Thomas joins cast members Helen George, Jenny Agutter and Leonie Elliott to celebrate the upcoming 10th season of the period drama.
From the moment Call the Midwife first aired on BBC1 in 2012, the period drama about a group of midwives working in London’s East End was a bona fide hit, drawing an average of more than 10 million viewers across its first season.
Now on the eve of its 10th season – the series returns to UK screens this Sunday – this “unique and unstoppable” series inspired by Jennifer Worth’s memoirs is described by the broadcaster’s director of drama Piers Wenger as “the jewel in the BBC’s crown.”
Having started in the 1950s, Call the Midwife has tackled subjects such as poverty, immigration, cystic fibrosis, caring for the terminally ill, the introduction of the contraceptive pill, domestic violence, racial abuse and abortion. The new seven-part run begins in 1966, with changes in store for the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House. Trixie (Helen George) faces a new professional challenge and Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) must overcome a crisis of faith, with the year also notable for the fact that England will win the World Cup. And with creator and writer Heidi Thomas and producer Neal Street Productions already at work on season 11, the show is guaranteed to return in 2022.
At a recent Royal Television Society event, Thomas was joined by cast members George, Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne) and Leonie Elliott (Nurse Lucille Anderson) to look back over the last 10 years of Call the Midwife, which Wenger says is “one of the BBC’s most popular and celebrated dramas of all time.”
Heidi Thomas says Call the Midwife is so precious to her because she never runs out of inspiring stories to tell, all based on real-life events and cases.
Thomas: What we as a team have managed to achieve over the years is to give people the comfort of familiarity without that ever becoming stale. I derive enormous pleasure from the complexity of the performances we get from our main players. I’m constantly finding new corners and nuances and points of illumination in their characters. That’s partly because of what they bring to the table. The world in which we are set is also full of nuance and complexity and points of illumination. I never, ever get bored of it and I can’t think that, for me, there will ever be another job like this.
Jenny Agutter is still waiting for the standard of the show to slip, but says the scripts are a “joy” to read every year.
Agutter: They are always full of complexity, the human spirit and all of those things that make them an absolute joy to read, a joy to perform and a joy to watch everybody else take part in. We have babies as well, which adds to the enjoyment of life. Babies always bring with them hope.
Leonie Elliott says it was “nerve wracking” to join the show in season seven, but exciting as well.
Elliott: Everyone was so friendly and Heidi created such a wonderful character, with nuances and complexities. This is my fourth season and now we’re welcoming new people into the show, so I’m no longer the new member. It just deals with such primal things, which I think everyone can relate to – new life and love and loss. It’s just so wonderful to be a part of it.
As an ever-present cast member, Helen George can still remember her first few days on set and says the audience reaction has surprised her the most, particularly as more people have discovered the show during the coronavirus lockdowns.
George: What the show gives is this wonderful sense of community, which perhaps we’ve all been longing for over the last year, over lockdown and even before – the sense of individuals within a world where they coexist and they have a community. That’s something that we’ve all been lacking and searching for, and definitely something people are looking forward to [after lockdown].
Heidi has this magnificent way of reflecting what’s going on in the present day, especially politically and medically. The two often collide, reflecting back on Nonnatus House in the 1960s and social history that was happening at the time and making us all realise that we’re going round in circles and things are sometimes progressing and sometimes not.
One of Thomas’s most memorable moments during the show’s history is covering the thalidomide crisis, when the drug given to expectant mothers in the late 1950s and early 1960s was found to harm unborn babies and cause serious birth defects.
Thomas: Thalidomide was one of our most important storylines. It was a storyline we first touched upon towards the end of season four. In season five, we featured it in three episodes and in the subsequent series, we’ve picked up on the story of a family whose baby had been born with thalidomide injuries.
It was an extraordinary journey to go. When it became known publicly that we were going to do the thalidomide story, it made me realise the power and responsibility of Call the Midwife because we were expected to do this story well by the people whose story we were telling. We were contacted from many directions and we really made a point of hearing those voices.
Being a person who is a direct contemporary of the thalidomide generation, I found it an extraordinarily powerful and moving story simply because I’m now in my late 50s, as are the thalidomide community. I do remember seeing children without arms or legs at the seaside or at the swing park; people or children who were just like me and yet not at all like me. They played an enormous part in our society’s concept of understanding disability.
There’s something extraordinarily moving about seeing a baby who was born like that. And yet because we are ‘popular drama,’ we could not only reach a large audience with this story and create conversations, but we were able to go behind the delivery room door and, indeed, behind this sluice room door. That was a privilege and a responsibility I didn’t want to shirk.
Call the Midwife is notable for giving older female actors a platform, with renowned names such as Agutter, Parfitt and Pam Ferris among the actors who have appeared in the series.
Thomas: I do it as naturally as breathing, partly because I am myself quite old. There’s no great policy decision here. Drama is about texture. We have always had a core group of younger or young women at the heart of the show but, equally, the wisdom of older characters is very important. It’s very female-driven. Therefore, you do get a lot of texture in intergenerational relationships. They do all sorts of important work out in the community but then they can come home to Nonnatus House, have sardines on toast and talk about whether they’re going to wear tights instead of stockings.
I don’t set out to create work opportunities for actors of any age or gender. What I set out to do is make people passionately visible and to represent human company, human community, in all its richness and variety. We do have roles for older men on the show as well as well as younger ones. As the 60s unfold, we are telling more male-centric story lines, which again opens the door to more stories. But I just love writing for women of my old age and older because wisdom lies there, humour lies there, experience lies there. There’s a lot to reflect upon and a lot to forge ahead with. Nurse Crane (Linda Bassett) is an older woman but she’s always game for an adventure. Being old isn’t about being static or stationary, it’s about appreciating the context you’ve created for yourself throughout your life.
Across the series, Thomas has been able to build very realistic stories over a long period of time.
Thomas: We have the luxury of a slow burn. That might be Lucille’s romance with Cyril (Zephryn Taitte). It might be Trixie’s alcoholism. We deal in drama, not melodrama, so everything has to be earned. What I tend to do is go and look, in the first instance, at the driest resources that are available to me. That will be the Medical Office of Health reports at the Wellcome Collection [a medical museum and library in London]. I also read [Parliamentary record] Hansard and I go through the British newspaper archive.
I’m not looking for issues. I’m looking for stories and, for me, a story is something that grabs you in the heart, the throat or the stomach, not the brain. It’s something that surprises me, something that angers me, something that will make me weep or simply illuminate me or educate me on something I did not know. Once I have been gripped by a story, I look at ways of fleshing it out. I do more research and, by the time we get to script stage, we consult with experts on any medical story.
As a writer, she is particularly intrigued by the way stories can unfold, with one leading to another later in the series.
Thomas: For example, we showed Trixie training as a cervical cytology nurse because cervical smear testing was being introduced on a voluntary and experimental level via GP practices. As we go forward into season 11, I would like to tell a story where cervical cancer is diagnosed. We haven’t done that yet, but we’ve sown the seeds for that almost two years. There is an element of involving the social and medical landscape to unfold at a realistic pace, which I really enjoy, and one story will just quite naturally lead on to another story.
Thomas is now looking forward to depicting later in the 1960s when women start to take greater agency over their own bodies.
Thomas: Perhaps women will start enjoying their own bodies, which is something we haven’t really seen them do yet. They live in mortal fear of anything that might lead to pregnancy. I’m really looking forward to the bit of the 60s where women actually start to have some fun, because we really are going to break out of the doll’s house and our bodies won’t be an unruly object that has to be dominated and controlled, but something that can be celebrated.
We have said the V word– vagina – so many times now. People are still shocked. But we have yet to say the F word, which is feminism. If we do continue for a couple more years, we might be getting into that sort of territory.
On and off set, the cast has found support among each other as they continue to tackle difficult and emotionally challenging storylines.
Elliott: Storylines where we’re dealing with racism are personally quite difficult to film. The cast in that situation are very supportive. Some of our guest stars have apologised after takes. We know it’s acting, but just they’ve taken their support to a further level by apologising afterwards. In those sort of situations, it’s always nice to have a very calm set and just have actors that are very supportive. Of course, they don’t have to [apologise], but the fact that they do it just makes you feel a lot more comfortable and supported by everyone.
George: That’s one of the strong points of the show – there’s always been a strong sense of support. For a while, it would seem that women on TV couldn’t survive without having some sort of cat fight or something. And here we are, living proof that women can live with women and it can be a supportive environment and an environment that gives you growth and so much variety and light and love in your life. That’s true on our set and that goes for the crew as well. A lot of the crew, we’ve had since the beginning so there is a strong sense of support on and off camera, which is wonderful and one of my favourite things about the job.
That supportive environment extends to Thomas, who says there has never been a story too bold or too dark for her to pitch to the producers.
Thomas: As a writer, you have to be brave. You use your imagination and you put your innermost thoughts out there, and I know I’m guaranteed a soft landing place for some very hard ideas. I can’t tell you how freeing that is and how that has enabled me to spread my creative wings, because I know I’m never going to get left out of the room, told something is impossible or told, ‘No, that story’s too dark.’
What Call the Midwife has given me, which not every writer can say they get in their career, is a home. I have a home on that show, and a home is a very precious place. A home is where you are safe. A home is where you can do bold things. I like to think that some of the courage we exhibit as a drama comes about because we have tremendous trust between ourselves. When you have a company like ours, there’s nowhere you’re scared to go.