IT is the gentle BBC drama packed with charm and childbirth – and there’s an abundance of both in this year’s Christmas special.
Call The Midwife’s festive show will feature a record number of new arrivals, with five pregnant women giving birth within minutes of each other on Christmas Day.
Helen George, who has played midwife Trixie since the period drama’s 2012 inception, said with a laugh: “That’s the most babies ever born in one episode. I’ve never seen that.”
Based on former nurse Jennifer Worth’s best-selling memoirs, Call The Midwife follows the work of the midwives and nuns of Nonnatus House, a fictional convent in London’s deprived Poplar district of the 1950s.
Ten seasons of the much-loved show — which still pulls in eight million viewers — have been aired, and two new series are on the way.
But the show’s creator, Heidi Thomas, continues to find new ways to bring babies into the world.
Heidi, 59, said: “So, amazing things happen to women’s bodies generally, but in this series specifically. And as ever, when we deal with childbirth, it’s not about putting the mother’s life in peril.
“It’s often about context. There are only so many ways a baby can come out of a woman’s body. So how we’ve managed to do 96 episodes about it, I sometimes wonder.”
‘It was beautiful, like a real wedding’
But new cast member Megan Cusack, who plays Irish student nurse Nancy, thinks the record-breaking festive show makes sense, adding: “That was really nice. And it feels like at Christmas there are a lot of myths, and old wives tales over the years.
“It’s like full moons and Christmas — you know loads of babies are going to happen. So it feels pretty realistic. And that Christmas frantic rush that goes with it.”
The special finds the midwives especially busy as they prepare for nurse Lucille’s wedding to Cyril. Fans will be delighted to hear the lovebirds finally tie the knot in this Christmas episode.
As some scenes were filmed during England’s lockdown — when thousand of weddings were cancelled due to the pandemic — the bash took on new meaning for the cast and crew.
Heidi said: “When we were making this series, one of the things that was quite extraordinary was nobody had been to a wedding for ages. Because, like my nephew’s wedding was postponed, or weddings just weren’t happening.
“So it became like the ultimate wedding, of quarrelling over swatches and guests lists. And I had a hissy fit when I saw some photographs of some suits and I was like, it’s not a real wedding. But it felt like one. It was lovely, it was beautiful.”
It’s like full moons and Christmas — you know loads of babies are going to happen. So it feels pretty realistic.
Producers tried to maintain Covid health and safety protocols throughout, so the scenes were far from romantic to film. Zephryn Taitte, who plays Cyril, said: “It was lovely, hardcore and at times serious, but lovely at the same time. It was a logistical nightmare.”
While clever camera angles mean viewers won’t notice, everyone had to wear cumbersome plastic visors on set. And kissing scenes were especially awkward. Zephryn went on: “It was a logistical feat to bring it all together. But we were there from the morning until the very end.
“We couldn’t kiss because of the Perspex we had to use . . . all the social distancing rules we had to navigate. So it was quite tricky. Even holding a hand was a bit taboo. So you saw the bliss and the beauty of it. But doing it was definitely a challenge.”
Sister Julienne actress Jenny Agutter, 68, added: “It did make one very aware though, of the fact there were so many people whose weddings were put off, sadly.”
The long days were also a challenge for Leonie Elliott, who plays bride Lucille. Getting into and out of her character’s wedding outfit was time-consuming — but thankfully she was provided with a tracksuit to wear during her lunch break. At other times she stuck to water to ensure the dress stayed pristine.
Helen George, 37, said: “The costume girls got her this white tracksuit to wear, so like a Kim Kardashian-like wedding.” Leonie, 33, said: “That was very cool. I could eat in that, which was lovely.
‘A different energy’
“It was a tiring day being elegant. It took probably about 20 minutes to get into the dress and everything. So it was very difficult getting out of it. I only got out of it maybe once throughout the day to have lunch and then it was just water, no tea, no coffee.”
Helen added: “But we are lucky because we’re not the nuns, because the nuns have the wimples, and then they have the masks, the visors, and the goggles, so there’s no connection to the outside world. It’s really tough to wear.
“We became masters at kissing through Perspex. It’s the most unsexy thing you could ever do. A man comes along with a little spray and a window wipe to wipe down your spit after every take. It was horrific.
“It takes a while to get going. And it was so mechanical. Do we turn our head to the left or bring your cheek a bit and your head and . . . ? Just awful. So embarrassing.”
Despite the difficulties of filming during Covid, the cast still felt a certain magic shooting the Christmas special. It was especially poignant for new addition Megan, 24, as it was her first festive programme with the show.
She said: “I did think there was a different vibe. I mean, I adore Christmas in general, so you’re just bowled over by all the lights and everything looking gorgeous and there’s a different energy, I felt anyway.”
There’s an anticipation that you are going to be crying over your sherry, but then rejoicing by the end of it. But that’s the nature of childbirth in Call The Midwife.
Helen, who has been in all nine previous festive specials, agrees. She said: “It always feels different doing the Christmas one, because it’s a standalone, and it’s an hour and a half. So there’s a bit more pressure, a bit more anticipation for the Christmas special because it goes out on Christmas Day.
“I think people always expect the light and the shade in Call The Midwife, especially in the Christmas special. There’s an anticipation that you are going to be crying over your sherry, but then rejoicing by the end of it. But that’s the nature of childbirth in Call The Midwife.”
Heidi is particularly pleased to be able to present the seasonal special because the team weren’t able to promote the show in the same way in 2020, due to the pandemic.
She said: “It’s one of those beautiful moments of the year, like birds flying south or chocolate oranges appearing in the supermarket. And last year, there was just nothing, we didn’t have that. And it felt, even though the show was made and went on as usual, we didn’t have this moment.”
One thing the crew were used to is filming some of the winter scenes during the height of summer. The magic of television will make Poplar look chilly — and there’s even snow. Cliff Parisi has played Nonnatus House handyman Fred Buckle since the first series.
He is the show’s very own Father Christmas. The former EastEnders star said: “It can be quite hot when the sun’s out in August. And there are piles of snow everywhere. It’s roasting hot, winter boots, gloves, Santa hat, beard. Ho ho ho!”
The Call the Midwife special will air on Christmas Day.
Wed saved by leeches
USUALLY it is the nuns of Nonnatus House that come to the rescue, but this year’s Christmas special shows Lucille’s big wedding being saved by leeches.
The bride-to-be, played by Leonie Elliott, suffers an injury to her face and is devastated her big day could be ruined.
But Dr Turner, played by Stephen McGann, calls on the 19th century art of leech therapy and uses the predatory worm to suck the wound clean.
The critters were so important to the scene they came with their own “wrangler”. Stephen, 58, who is married to show creator Heidi Thomas, said: “They got more care taken of them than the actors.
“They come in a little jar. They’d say ‘bring on the leeches’ and the leech wrangler comes in with tweezers. And you go ‘OK, come on, let me steel myself’. You grab a leech in the middle, and leeches are quite autonomous things, they’re kind of alive at every part of their body.”
Castmate Jenny Agutter, who plays Sister Julienne, joked: “No leeches were hurt during filming!”
Stephen added: “It could’ve gone incredibly wrong – but it was very funny.” If the leeches had touched Leomie’s skin, they would have latched on and started sucking.
But she said concern over the creepy crawlies wasn’t on her mind. Instead she was struggling with the painful prosthetics and make-up she had to wear on her face.
Leomie said: “It took some getting used to because I was walking around set just being able to see out of one eye and it did start to hurt. I mean, it’s probably just my mind playing tricks on me, but yeah, it did start to hurt.”
The 90-minute Christmas Day special on BBC1 also includes a plot involving East End gangsters and heroin addiction.
Call The Midwife’s Megan Cusack rushed to hospital after falling down the stairs at Tric Awards