The true story behind Call the Midwife

Jennifer Worth's daughters remember the real women who inspired the hit Sunday-night drama

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The true story behind Call the Midwife
Written By
E Dickson
On Sunday night, sisters Suzannah Hart and Juliette Walton will gather their family to watch the fifth of the series of six episodes of BBC1’s hit series Call the Midwife.

Nothing unusual in that - the true-to-life drama captured 9.8 million viewers for its first episode, BBC1’s highest launch figure to date - and a further eight episodes have already been commissioned.

For Suzannah and Juliette, however, Call the Midwife has a special resonance. The drama is adapted from the bestselling memoirs of their mother, Jennifer Worth, who died, aged 75, just before the series was filmed last summer.

Watching the progress of Jenny Lee (played by Jessica Raine) as she learns about life in the slums of postwar Poplar has, say the sisters, been a uniquely moving experience. Not only have they had the chance to watch their mother’s footsteps, but memories of the other real characters - Sister Julienne, fellow midwife Cynthia and boilerman Fred - have come flooding back.

Jennifer Worth

“Mother was fading fast in the summer, just as the series was starting to be brought to life, and that was a very unusual, but quite magical and positive dovetail of events,” explains Juliette. “Even so, I watched the first episode with trepidation. I didn’t know if I would enjoy it, but I just loved it and am growing to love it more.”

Suzannah, 47, agrees: “There are hundreds of thousands of women who lose their mothers, but how many of those will live through the experience that we’ve just been through – seeing our mother portrayed as a young girl, in a time before we knew her? It feels like a very special privilege, and in a way it has helped us cope with her loss.

“Jessica Raine was terribly anxious that we should be happy with her performance and I think she’s got it just right. Her Jenny is very dignified, there’s a slight reserve to her. She holds herself well and speaks nicely. All that fits very well with Mother’s personality.”

“Of course,” says Juliette, 45, “none of us knew Mother at that stage in her life, but for me, the character of Jenny is very true to the person she became. It’s the little things, like when she’s all dressed up in her beautiful clothes to go to a concert. Mother took a lot of pride in her appearance – she always had her clothes hand-made, even when she was very young.

“At the same time, she was a very individual character. When Jenny kicks off her high heels and trips down the street in her stockinged feet – that’s exactly what Mother was like.

“You also get the sense from the programme that Jenny is quite quiet, an observer. And that’s how Mother was. She wasn’t a great one for chit-chat. Often in social situations she would take a back seat and just absorb what was going on around her. And yet she never conformed. She was quite determined to do things her own way.”

Although the publication of Worth’s bestselling East End trilogy - Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End, all written when the author was in her 60s - was a revelation to her daughters, some of the characters were already familiar.

Sister Julienne

“Mother was a very forward-looking person,” explains Juliette. “She only let drop the odd snippet from her time with the nuns. She used to tell us little stories about Fred the boilerman at ‘Nonnatus House’ and we’d all have a jolly laugh about his accidentally flicking ash onto somebody’s meringue. Sister Julienne [played by Jenny Agutter] and Cynthia [Bryony Hannah], on the other hand, were part of our childhood.”

“I have lovely memories of Sister Julienne,” says Suzannah. “When the community [in real life, the Sisters of St John the Divine] left the East End, they moved to Hastings in East Sussex. My mother used to take me and my sister there on holiday – this would have been the early 70s – and we stayed in a small caravan in the convent grounds. I remember having tea with the nuns – we had cinnamon toast, which was a very new experience for me – and it was all very genteel and sweet.

“There’s a photo taken of me at the time with Sister Julienne. I would have been about seven and I remember being very pleased that I was wearing a blue dress with a white collar – just like a little mini-nun! Sister Julienne was a tiny little lady – very serene and calming, but at the same time an incredibly cheery, smiley person with a real twinkle in her eye. I think Jenny Agutter has ‘got’ that very well indeed.

“When we returned home, Sister Julienne would write letters to me and Juliette, with little stories and beautiful illustrations down the side in felt pen or watercolour. She’d come and visit us too, and towards the end of her life, by which time the community had moved to Birmingham, my mother would visit her every week.”

“My mother’s time with the nuns was clearly very inspiring,” adds Juliette. “I think, like all teenagers, she’d had a difficult time and she needed some kind of spiritual fulfilment to focus her. She never made a big deal of religion. Her belief was a quiet thing, but it was important to her all through her life. Cynthia, too, was quite a spiritual person – she married a vicar – and she remained a lifelong friend.”

Cynthia

“I have very clear memories of Cynthia,” says Suzannah, “because she was my godmother and my mother made a point of keeping in close contact with her. She had no children of her own, although when she married she became a stepmother, so I think my sister and I were special for her. I still have the teddy bear she knitted for my christening. She was a very sympathetic person, incredibly sweet-natured.

“When she married we used to go to the West Country to stay with her at the vicarage. I have a clear memory of her taking us up the church tower and letting my sister and me have a go on the bell ropes. We must have worried that every- one would think it was the wrong time, and I remember Cynthia’s lovely, soft voice saying, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. No one will mind.’ Sadly, she died of cancer and, again, my mother was with her towards the end.”

Chummy

Cynthia, on account of her close connection with Worth, is the only midwife who keeps her real name. Suzannah and Juliette never knew “Chummy”, the enormously popular character played by Miranda Hart, but Suzannah recognises the pen portrait from an old photograph of her mother’s colleagues – a picture she no longer has.

“She was definitely a real person. Sadly I never met her, but I’ve seen her picture, and there she was, towering head and shoulders above the others. The casting for the drama is perfect. You read about Chummy in the book and you immediately think ‘Miranda’.”

Illness

While Worth is now firmly associated in the public mind with the hopeful beginnings of life, her subsequent medical career as a Marie Curie nurse caring for cancer patients (before she quit nursing altogether to concentrate on music) made no less impact on her personal philosophy. Her 2010 book, In the Midst of Life, is a reflection on death and the need to respect the wishes of the dying.

When she herself was struck by cancer of the oesophagus, she determined to die on her own terms. “When Mother was diagnosed, she quickly decided she didn’t want surgery; she just wanted to let nature take its course,” says Suzannah. “She had no fear of death – she felt it was a natural part of life, as natural as birth, and she simply didn’t want to put herself through the pain.

“So her decision was to be cared for at home, by me and my sister and my dad and my two daughters. And because she had no fear herself, it gave us the strength to cope with her decision.

“I remember one afternoon I was feeling quite choked up and she said, ‘Darling, I have tried not to give you any cause for grief in my lifetime. I really don’t want you to be grieving for me now.’ She lived and died by her own strong views and, when her end came, it was entirely as she would have wished.”

Legacy

Worth’s ambition in writing Call the Midwife - one now realised - was “to do for midwifery what James Herriot did for vets”. It is a source of particular pride for Suzannah, who followed her mother into a musical career, that her own daughter, Eleanor, 18, has been inspired to train as a midwife. “It’s very special,” she says, “that Eleanor wants to follow her Grandma’s path.”

For Juliette, who works as an adviser to young people who have been in care, her mother’s legacy is the desire to make a difference. “Mother used to tell us about the East End tenements and the docks – she used to say it was incredible, the hardship people had to deal with. I think she felt very privileged to have been a contributing part of that community. She was someone who, whatever the problem, wanted to be involved.”

It is a fine legacy, now shared by millions, and Juliette and Suzannah will be raising a glass of champagne to their inspirational mother as the credits roll on Sunday. “I’m so grateful to all the production team for taking Mother’s vision on,” says Juliette. “It is so very positive. It’s what she would have wanted.”

This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 7 February 2012.

Call the Midwife continues tonight at 8pm on BBC1/BBC1 HD

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