When Call the Midwife premiered in England, it became the highest rated drama debut in BBC history. The critically acclaimed series became a favorite with American audiences as well when it debuted on THIRTEEN last September. Based on the bestselling memoirs by Jennifer Worth, it tells colorful stories of midwifery and families in 1950s post-war London, following new midwife Jenny Lee and the midwives and nuns at Nonnatus House as they minister to expectant mothers in the poorest area of the city.
The earnest but sheltered Jenny, the eternally stern Sister Evangelina, and the fabulously glamorous Trixie Franklin are among the characters who have captured viewers’ hearts in the States and abroad. Season Two begins this month, delivering more births, babies, and bicycling, plus blossoming romance from an unexpected corner.
THIRTEEN spoke with Jessica Raine (Jenny), Helen George (Trixie), and Pam Ferris (Sister Evangelina) about their work on the series.
Why do you think Call the Midwife is so popular with contemporary audiences?
Jessica Raine: The stories are full of humanity and transport people to a world that is so unique and so different from the world we live in today. I love that we focus on women’s stories you really don’t see anywhere else on television, featuring strong, well-defined female characters who support each other instead of competing with each other. The program is also unique in that it has elements of nostalgia, but is also quite gritty, with storylines that challenge and respect the audience.
Helen George: I think part of the show’s success stems from great writing, first with Jennifer Worth’s memoirs — which were extremely popular in England even before we began work on the series — and then with Heidi Thomas’s wonderful scripts. We also have an amazing design team who pays an extraordinary amount of attention to period detail and a cast that works well together. When we’re together, there’s chemistry. I like to think some of that magic comes across on the screen.
Pam Ferris: The whole concept of birth is about as fundamental as you can get and to my knowledge, no one has used it as a dramatic event. It has all the elements of drama. It has suspense, it has crises, it has pain, it has joy, and an outcome of some sort. As an event, it is inherently dramatic, and we seem to have harnessed that.
What insights have you gained about life in post-war London – especially women’s lives during that era – from working on the series?
JR: I didn’t realize how poor London was after World War II. I didn’t know, for example, that rationing continued 12 years after the war ended. I didn’t realize the depth of poverty that existed, especially in the East End — and the lack of contraception was astounding. In some cases, women had a dozen children. In fact, one of the episodes in the first season focused on a woman who had 24 children. People gasped at that and thought it wasn’t true, but it came directly from the memoirs.
HG: My answer is quite a practical one: these women were the original recyclers. We think the concept of recycling is a modern notion, but through necessity they had to recycle. They didn’t have baby wipes, they had nappies and towels they had to wash again and again. Nothing was thrown away. Even the mattresses the women gave birth on at home would be lined with newspaper or plastic covers so they could be preserved.
PF: I think it’s interesting to look at the time just before a revolution. The Beatles happened in the early 60s, The Pill happened in the early 60s, teenagers were invented in the early 60s, and our series takes place before all that. Women’s roles were in flux. They were fermenting. Women were shaking up their roles quite dramatically and grasped the revolution as it was about to emerge. It’s fascinating to look at that very fertile, very volatile period.
Were there any storylines from the past two seasons that really spoke to you?
JR: I love the story of Frank and Peggy from Season 1 because it was a very difficult kind of love that rose above all obstacles. We learn that as children they were sent to the workhouse together and then were separated. It’s quite a difficult story because they were brother and sister and ended up living together more as husband and wife. In the end, though, it’s a very touching story. When Frank passes away, Peggy can’t stand the thought of living without him and overdoses on morphine. It’s a very dark story, but I actually found it incredibly moving.
HG: I really love seeing the stories the regular characters have, as well as the stories that come in with the guest characters. The storyline of Sister Monica Joan’s struggle with dementia is such a beautifully played arc throughout the first season, and Judy Parfitt does such an amazing job in each episode. It’s so beautiful to watch the delicateness of her journey. There’s a history of dementia in my family – my grandmother had it – so for me it has a personal poignancy, as well.
PF: Jennifer Worth wrote another book called The Shadow of the Workhouse, which falls across Season One quite definitely and is even more prominent in Season 2. Reading the book gave me a deeper understanding of the characters and their storylines. I learned about the pain these people endured, which gave me an even deeper connection to the material. More specifically, I found the workhouse storyline in the Christmas special very touching and revelatory.
Jennifer Worth passed away right before filming began on the series. If you could meet her, what would you say to her?
HG: A great big thank you because this series has changed our lives and we owe an awful lot to her writing. Her family is very much involved with the series. They’re around on the set, and her granddaughters were even featured in a scene in the first episode – dressed as nuns! Thanks to their support and participation, we feel as though Jennifer’s spirit is around us on the set all the time.
PF: I would thank her for sharing these wonderful stories with us. I’m so sad that I never had the chance to meet her. She died three days before our very first read through. It was very sad, very unfortunate timing.
JR: I’d be absolutely terrified to meet her! I understand she was quite a formidable woman who was very much informed by her time at Nonnatus House and not afraid at all to give you her opinion. I do regret that I never did get to meet her, but it would be a bit unnerving since I portray her in the series.
If you were to host a Call the Midwife screening party, what would you wear and what would you serve?
JR: I don’t know what I’d wear, but I’d serve Spam – straight out of the tin!
HG: I’d probably dress as another character. I might dress as a nun to spice things up, and I’d serve no food, just snowballs — the alcoholic beverage — to get everyone really ploshed.
PF: I’d stick with my habit, but I would remove my wimple so I could hear what was going on. I’d serve a wobbly blancmange decorated in 1950s style.