Lots of children—seen and heard—appear in BBC1’s Call the Midwife, contributing a great deal to the show’s verisimilitude. The result may be a baby-booming, ratings-grabbing delight, yet surely the producers are bonkers to employ quite so many of the short show-offs, accessorised by their ghastly, pushy stage mums/dads/nans/granddads?
Ghastly, pushy stage mums like—ahem—me. Having always performed for their photographer dad’s camera, signing-up our two confident sons to the children’s talent agency Scallywags seemed like a fun way to foster a work ethic amongst the LOL Generation. The (then) nine-year-old had landed a few jobs before being booked for Call The Midwife’s Christmas Special, which was shot last summer and for which Scallywags provided all the non-leading-role children.
“Apparently you’re playing a cub. You’ll have to have your hair cut very short, work extremely hard.” There was a narrowing of eyes, a tossing of fringe: “Hair cut? Will I miss any school?” “Five days—if the head teacher lets you.” The air-punch and “YEEEES!” indicated that these were acceptable terms and conditions. Fortunately the head teacher agreed.
As with any semi-secret world with its own language and Portaloos—a circus, for example—film and TV sets have a near-Masonic dynamic and complex caste system. On a big shoot like Midwife the numerous kids are wrangled by the (harried but impressively cheerful and energetic and therefore usually quite young) Second Assistant Directors—aka 2nd ADs—whose job description involves wearing black, carrying clipboards and getting shouted at by both children and those much further up the food chain, the latter usually via walkie-talkies. My admiration knows no bounds.
Second ADs are invariably assisted by (or in cahoots with) professional chaperones whose job also involves herding/corraling/cajoling children off a location bus and onto a Set; a through-the-wardrobe parallel universe where the TV ‘magic’ actually happens and from which parents are, basically, banned, presumably on the grounds of being neither necessary nor ‘magical’. Other chaperone’s duties include filling out bafflingly complicated forms logging each minute every child spends in wardrobe/hair & makeup/on set/resting, providing an especially heady whirl of non-stop showbiz glamour for those who enjoy paperwork.
The cubs on the Christmas Midwife shoot were all nine or ten, which means a maximum of four hours per day in front of cameras, as enshrined in The Children (Performances) Regulations Act of 1968. Ask a nine year old to do a bit of On-Set overtime and you’d not only break the law, you’d incur the wrath of ‘The Inspectors’—shadowy, SMERSH-ish individuals employed by whichever local authority has jurisdiction over the Set. Should ‘The Inspectors’ descend and decide that a production is run by a bunch of latter day Fagins they can shut it down—yes, even if it’s a remake of Oliver! In practice, however, if ‘The Inspector’ asks someone like me (possibly even me) if “the kids are OK?” that someone may shrug and say “well, they’re all still alive!”, at which point the chaperones and ADs (who take their professional responsibilities appropriately seriously, unlike parents) often put their heads in their hands and turn at least 50 highly amusing shades of whiteish-grey.
Anyway, despite being entirely co-dependent there are conflicts of interests between all On-Set parties. The children are up for a having a laugh in between their bursts of fiercely focused discipline and, though possessed of a notably dry sense of humour, their parents are predominantly interested in their offspring’s welfare. Ads, on the other hand, are understandably also very interested in the welfare of the production (“No, boys, please don’t ask Star’s Name Here to pay you all a pound every time they swear, even if that is actually a brilliant idea”). Chaperones are, of course, usually caught in the middle with a clipboard (“Sorry, er, Thingy’s Mum—it’s very kind of you to offer but you can’t take anybody else except your son to wardrobe unless you’re CRB checked…”).
But while the AD’s (and indeed the Boss D’s) cleverly chivvy the kinder to do their stuff on cue in front of actual cameras (“and no, not in a ‘Gangnam Style’, thanks—it’s 1958”), the parents gossip a lot and are therefore vaguely resented by everyone else on Set except conceivably the kids, who know that only their parents can be bothered to trawl the location for unplugged sockets in order to recharge the electronic stuff that stops them going completely Lord of the Flies in between Takes.
But enough of Health and Safety—for an On-Set Mum surely it’s all about the showbiz fabulousness—or at least about queuing alongside Miranda Hart/Jenny Agutter/Jessica Raine at lunch? Well, it would be but for the fact that a different cast caste = entirely separate Portaloo-niverse. Therefore I have precisely zero anecdotes about sharing amusing chemical lavatory-related pratfalls with Miranda Hart, aka Midwife’s Chummy. Miranda did, however, compliment my son on his H Potterish specs: “Do you wear them in real life?” “No.” “Well, they suit you!”. My son was so delighted by this exchange I worried I’d have to buy him a pair of placebo specs.
Anyway, one day I was creeping furtively around the Set in search of a socket when I realised the kids were filming on the other side of a big pair of glazed doors. I hunkered down out of sight and held my breath; after a minute or two came a shouted “cut!” and a young female crew member suddenly burst through the double doors. She was wiping her eyes. “Blimey” she said, looking mildly embarrassed, “the little So-and-So’s actually made me cry.”
“You mean in a good way?”
She nodded, shrugged: “I know. Who would have thought?”
Driving home that evening, I mentioned this to my son who also shrugged. “Yeah, it’s cos we’re mates now, like a real cub troop. We work well together.”
At which point my frankly unrecognizable son —short-back-and-sides and specs; fifty per cent 1950s ‘cub scout’-cum-Miranda’s Nativity-‘inn keeper’ and fifty per cent diligent thespian pro — was also clearly 100 per cent exhausted (in a good way) and promptly fell asleep.
Several weeks later Scallywags emailed to say that CTM’s (brilliant) writer/producer, Heidi Thomas had written the cubs into the show’s second series, which had started filming straight after the Christmas Special. When I passed on the news you could probably have heard my son’s “YEEEESSSSS and I don’t even care about the hair!” back in 1958. As anyone who enjoyed that wonderfully touching Christmas Day Special can testify, a sprinkling of old-fashioned TV magic is very much part of Call The Midwife’s success. More surprisingly (not least to this ‘Midwife Mum’), apparently some of that magic and success can even be blamed on the kids.