As the lead actress in Call the Midwife genteelly sips from a cup in a very refined hotel lounge where she’s come to take tea with Radio Times, it’s hard to imagine Jessica Raine as a rock star, say, laying waste to the mini bar and chucking the TV out of the hotel suite window. She laughs at the very idea of such hedonism. “I don’t think I would make a great rock star. I like my tea too much!”
Yet the 30-year-old actress has had to adjust to the kind of instant fame normally thrust upon pop celebrities. When Midwife slipped, unheralded, onto our screens this time last year, Raine was largely unknown and Heidi Thomas’ adaptation of the memoirs of Jennifer Worth about being a midwife in the East End of London during the 1950s was not overburdened with hype.
However, the show soon exceeded all expectations, averaging a whopping 8.7 million viewers per episode and in the process becoming BBC1’s most successful new drama of the last decade. Threatening the global hegemony of Downton Abbey, Midwife has already been sold to more than 90 territories around the world.
To underline its popularity, Raine, who plays the central character, the ingénue midwife Jenny Lee, has been asked to sign up for a further eight series. Midwife has catapulted the actress overnight from anonymous to A List.
In person, the actress is delightful. Less prim and uptight than her screen alter ego, Raine can be summed up by all those adjectives beginning with C: charming, charismatic and cute. Best of all, she is unaffected about her out-of- the-blue celebrity. Raine, who lives in London with her actor boyfriend, reveals, “I’ve never experienced anything like that wave of attention before. I was appearing in The Changeling at the Young Vic in London at the end of last year and getting public transport every day. Overnight, I found myself being stared at on the tube. You start to look behind you or think, ‘Is there something on my face?’ Thank God I really love the show – can you imagine what it would be like if I didn’t?
“The most common place I get stopped by fans is the ladies’. If there’s a queue outside, you’re trapped because you need to go. But they’re very good bonding places – you always end up having great conversations in the loo.”
So just why has Midwife struck such a chord with viewers? “The first series surprised everyone,” Raine reckons. “No one knew what it would be. It doesn’t fit into any categories, which in this day and age is quite rare. It’s also a subject that has never been touched on before, so the time was ripe for it. Everyone has a great birth story. It’s a natural arena for drama.”
The actress, who has previously appeared in the movies Robin Hood and The Woman in Black with Daniel Radcliffe, thinks the tone of Midwife also wrong-footed viewers.
“It looks like a nostalgic dip into the 1950s, but what you actually get is something quite gritty. It features difficult storylines and is not a typical Sunday-night drama. I bumped into a director the other day who said to me, ‘It really got me, and I didn’t expect it to. There was even incest!’”
Another reason why Midwife, which also stars Miranda Hart, Pam Ferris and Jenny Agutter, has resonated is because not all its characters live happily ever after.
“It’s sometimes pretty hard, that’s what saves it,” says Raine. “Otherwise it would have become a chocolate-box, Sunday-night drama, which I was initially worried that it might be. But I knew from the script that it had an edge and that you never knew what would happen to the characters. Luckily, we’ve had very talented directors who’ve kept it on that knife edge. It has to maintain that or it would fall into something pretty, but without much depth. I think it has great depth, and that’s why it is constantly moving people to tears. Viewers find themselves crying and thinking, ‘Not again!’”
In the new series audiences will no doubt once again need to have their handkerchiefs at the ready as Jenny has to deal with domestic abuse, disabled babies and illegal abortion.
This forces the character to grow up very fast. As Raine explains, “Last year, Jenny did a lot of holding back, but not so much in this series, which is great. In fact, she becomes more confident and even rather bossy.”
In tackling these tricky issues, though, is there a danger that Midwife could be viewed as sermonising? Not according to Raine. “I don’t think it preaches any particular lessons because that would be unbearable – like Jerry Springer! But it shows that Jenny is not afraid to wade into difficult situations. In the end, you have to pitch in and help people out.”
Raine says she has now got used to the often demanding task of working with babies. “This time, Miranda got a wee-er, and I got a poo-er,” the actress grins. “But you really get used to working with babies. They’re such erratic creatures, there is nothing you can do to control them. You have to go with it and become good at acting with a baby screaming in your ear – they don’t teach you that at drama school.
“Quite rightly, you’re only allowed to work with babies for 20 minutes at a time, and their mums are never more than ten feet away. We have to take great care with them – often they’re naked and slippery. In the Christmas special, during the birth scene at the beginning, the baby decided to poo on the lovely girl giving birth. Because we needed to get the take, we just had to keep going as if it was the most wonderful thing on earth!”
So has working with babies made Raine herself feel broody? “Not massively. Having said that, I do go through phases of feeling broody. When the babies are there, I go gaga over them and everyone says, ‘You’re broody’. I certainly love getting to know the babies if I’m going to be working with them. I must admit during the last series, I fell in love with one. I could have taken him home,” confesses Raine, before joking, “I’m sure his mum would have been fine about it!”
It’s Raine’s one regret about the project that she never met Jennifer Worth, who wrote the original memoirs (Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, Farewell to the East End and In the Midst of Life), but sadly died in 2011, the year before Midwife first aired. “She was an amazing woman. The midwives were really brave. It took tremendous courage to be constantly riding their bikes, whatever the weather, through rough parts of town where there were lots of meths drinkers and then to be responsible for the birth of a human being. I have so much respect for them.”
Raine, who grew up on a farm in Herefordshire, has wanted to be an actress since she was a little girl. “I didn’t know what to call it back then,” she recalls. “I remember the time when everyone else got too cool to play games like shopkeepers. I was really gutted because I wanted to keep on playing them. I wanted to stay in that imaginary world. I won’t tell you my age then – actually, I was 20!”
She won a place at Rada where, “Everything suddenly fell into place. Previously, I’d thought this career was unattainable – I didn’t have any family members in the business. But at Rada, I found my confidence and thought, ‘This is what I want to do’.”
Raine clearly made the right decision. And this year she will find a whole new legion of fans when she plays Emma Grayling in Phantom of the Hex, the first episode in the new series of Doctor Who.
She describes acting opposite the Time Lord as, “Very different from Midwife. On Doctor Who, it was all mind machines and strobe lighting. But it was a magical experience and something I was very happy to do. It’s a very different character and genre – you have to throw yourself into it and take it very seriously.
“I hadn’t realised what an institution Doctor Who is. I got offered the part and didn’t think that much about it. Then you go on set and you see this blue police telephone box, and suddenly the weight of what you’re doing hits home.”
It helped that Raine already knew actor Matt Smith, who plays the Doctor. “We had done a play reading together. He’s a brilliant actor. He has a very long career ahead of him. I like the fact that he brings a darker edge to the role of the Doctor – it’s not all fun and games.”
Raine and Smith have something else in common: they’re instantly recognised by the public wherever they go. “You must never forget that it makes someone’s day if they see someone off the telly,” she reflects. “In our business, we’re all very cynical and see people off the telly all the time. But I was in a café in Hay the other day when a little boy and girl spotted me. Their jaws just dropped. They couldn’t believe they’d seen someone off the telly sitting near them. As I left, I gave them a little wave, and they were like ‘Ooo!’ That was lovely. You have to remember that it’s special for them.”
Raine adds, “Matt’s really good at that. He gets a hell of a lot of attention and handles it very well. I didn’t get any interest from Doctor Who fans, the so-called Whovians – not yet! I just get the Midwife fans.”
And what would the fans be called? “Midwifians?” Raine suggests, letting out one long, last laugh. “Let’s see if that catches on.”
Call the Midwife starts on Sunday 20 January at 8:00pm on BBC1