The nation has fallen in love with Call the Midwife, but few follow the drama about midwives and nuns working in London’s East End in the 1950s more eagerly than a devoted band of genteel female fans in central Birmingham.
Set among the curry houses and mosques of multicultural Alum Rock, the convent of the Sisters of the Anglican Community of St John the Divine comes to a halt every Sunday night as the nuns gather round their communal television to watch, laugh and reminisce.
The Sisters belong to the same community that Jennifer Worth, the creator of the series and author of the memoirs on which it is based, lived with as a young midwife in Poplar in the 1950s.
“We’ve had emails, letters – the response has been just amazing,” says Sister Christine Hoverd, 72, who with the rest of the community moved to their present premises in Birmingham in 1996. “There hasn’t been anything on the television about that time, or about midwifery really.”
But the Sisters’ enthusiasm for the series is based on more than a shared interest in new life and holy orders. They knew Worth and her memoirs well. In fact, they knew Call the Midwife so well they asked her to change it before publication.
Jennifer Worth remained close to St John’s long after she stopped working as a midwife in the 1970s to follow a career in music. “I knew her because she used to visit Sister Jocelyn, one of our nuns who was a friend from her days in Poplar,” says Sister Christine. “There was a period when I didn’t see her, but then one of her daughters moved to Birmingham.”
Worth was a frequent caller after that. “She usually visited us for lunch on a Saturday,” says Sister Margaret Angela King, 75.
When Worth wrote her memoirs of East End life a decade ago, she wanted to be sure that they met with the Sisters’ approval. “She sent us the original manuscript of Call the Midwife and we gave it over to Sister Marie-Claire [a nun who knew about Worth’s work with the community] to go over with a fine-tooth comb.”
Eventually the Sisters recommended that nearly all of the names of the characters, as well as St John’s itself, should be changed. “She was telling the story but it was mixed up with some fiction,” explains Sister Christine “And so at the time we felt that it better to use pseudonyms.”
So what is fact and what is fiction?
Sister Christine believes that Sister Monica Joan, the eccentric retired midwife played by Judy Parfitt, was not real. “She might have been based on two sisters, Sister Joan or Sister Elizabeth, but neither suffered from dementia.”
Then there’s Father Joe Williamson, who appeared as a Roman Catholic with an Irish accent, but he wasn’t like that in reality. “Father Joe Williamson was English and an Anglican,” says Sister Margaret. “He founded Wellclose House in Cable Street, east London, which helped rescue women from pimps and set them on a different road.”
And what about Chummy (Miranda Hart)? Among the nuns is 93-year-old Sister Teresa French, who was a nurse in Poplar at the same time as Jennifer Worth.
A small, alert woman who looks 20 years younger than her age, Sister Teresa can’t recall anyone who might have inspired Chummy.
There is another nun who shares Sister Teresa’s doubts. “I think she was completely fictitious,” says Sister Margaret, who was based in Poplar ten years after Chummy would have been there. Like Sister Teresa, she knew many of the nuns who had been there in Worth’s time. “There might have been somebody vaguely like her, but I don’t think so.”
Sadly, the one woman who knows for sure cannot provide any answers. Worth died of cancer before filming began last May. “I saw her last in February last year, and then she rang up to tell me that she had been diagnosed with cancer”, says Sister Christine. “She asked me to go down and see her and that is when she said to me that the BBC were going to televise the books.”
Suzannah Hart, Worth’s daughter, can shed a little light. “My mother was shown a photograph of the midwives at St John’s when she was ill. It belonged to another of her former colleagues. One was head and shoulders above the others, and this is who my mother identified as Chummy.” That photo, and the album it came from, was passed to director Philippa Lowthorpe, who used it as inspiration for the TV series.
Does it matter that some aspects are fiction? “Very few people knew what the situation was like after the Second World War”, says Sister Shirley Hart, 65. “I would say that it doesn’t matter that they’re inaccurate,” adds Sister Christine. “The essence was true.”
“Somebody said to me ‘Did you really ride a bicycle around the district?’ and I said, ‘Yeah… eight miles!’” says Sister Shirley. Scenes of midwives using newspapers as bottom sheets at home births are also deemed to be accurate. “What they didn’t show you was the other thing that we used to be taught, which was how to make newspaper bags for your dirty swabs. I still do that today!”
“I remember going to a block of flats in Poplar High Street and it was the sixth baby to be born,” recalls Sister Margaret. “The children were scantily dressed and there was nothing like carpets on the floor. And that was 1971, some time after.” And as for Chummy – do they wish they had met her? “We love her so much!” As they do the whole cast.
“We should invite them all for tea!” says Sister Christine. “Come on. The Sisters of today and the Sisters of then! Go on, Radio Times, you can make it happen!”
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 14 February 2012.
Call the Midwife concludes tonight, 8:30pm, BBC1