No one who works on Call the Midwife is more acutely attuned to the miracle of birth than Terri Coates, a midwife and lecturer of some 30 years standing. Our peerless consultant has been involved with the show from the start.
Terri first encountered Jennifer Worth after publishing an article in a midwifery magazine a dozen years ago, lamenting that midwives were “almost invisible” in literature. “Maybe,” wrote Terri, “there’s a midwife somewhere who can do for midwifery what James Herriot did for veterinary practice.”
Among many responses, Terri received a letter from retired nurse Jennifer, who said the article had inspired her to write her memoirs. Some 18 months later, she wrote again, having completed them. Terri offered to read her work. It had been written by hand on an odd assortment of pages, which she describes as “rather difficult to keep in order. It was a lovely story about women, and for women, and it was very powerful.”
Terri suggested to Jennifer she might be able to correct some clinical errors in the text, and Jennifer – who’d practised long ago and only for seven years – accepted the offer. A long collaborative relationship ensued and once I began to write the series, I too turned to Terri for support.
Hailed as a “baby whisperer” by awestruck technicians, Terri is modest about her talents. “I don’t think babies are at all fazed by being on set. If you hold a newborn confidently, they tend to relax and calm down quickly.” In fact, Terri admits she’s likelier to cry than the babies, and is routinely reduced to weeping during filming.
Sometimes it seems the only people on set who aren’t crying in the birth scenes are the babies. Tenderly nursed by Terri, and with everyone walking on tiptoe, they often sleep deeply throughout their time on camera – which isn’t necessarily what the script requires!
In real life, most healthy babies are wakeful at the point of birth, and it’s great to capture open eyes and flailing, starfish hands. However, we’d never, ever do anything to unsettle a contented babe and the crew are adept at working round unscheduled naps. Terri occasionally sanctions gently blowing on a dozing baby’s cheek, or softly tickling their feet, but if this doesn’t work shots are angled so the face cannot be seen.
The sound of crying (carefully recorded when it spontaneously occurs) can be dubbed on afterwards. In addition, I usually have some emergency dialogue scribbled down so that if I’m phoned from the set with the panicky message, “It’s absolutely FAST asleep!” I can supply one of the adult actors with some explanatory lines.
Newborn babies tend not to be on the books of modelling agencies, so we recruit them directly from maternity wings of local hospitals. During the first series, Call the Midwife was unknown to the masses, and we sometimes struggled to explain what we were up to. Second time around we’ve been bombarded, with some expectant mothers calling us direct and emailing photographs. Nobody has actually sent us their scan pictures yet, but it’s only a matter of time.
The younger the infant, the better. In an ideal world, our babies wouldn’t be more than four days old, when they still have the glazed, curled-up look of the newly born.
However, they must be licensed by their local council before they can appear on screen, and this protective procedure takes at least a week. Second assistant director Ben Rogers and his team try to get one step ahead by booking babies in advance of their due date, but Mother Nature has no respect for filming schedules. We’re often undone by them arriving early or too late.
Despite the nightmarish booking process, the presence of a baby brings about a tingling hush that makes the day’s work special. As Pam Ferris, who plays Sister Evangelina, observes, “It changes the atmosphere completely. You can sense something extraordinary in the air.”
Babies can “work” for no more than 20 minutes at a time. There’s more leeway with twins, who can be used alternately, but those are seldom available. Terri ensures that the tiny stars are held properly, kept warm and that the surroundings are clean and hazard-free. She is often contorted – out of sight of the cameras – beneath or behind the bed to stay within instant reach of the baby.
Natalie Hannington signed up Santana (her sixth child) after seeing one of our leaflets in a maternity clinic. An eight-pound baby, Santana arrived via Caesarean section. Natalie, 31, describes her as “just perfect”, and was happy to share her baby with the nation on screen. Before appearing on camera, Santana, like all performers, visited make-up. There, she was massaged with pure grapeseed oil and “bloodied” with a sugar-based red colouring to look fresh from the womb. Many babies are also born with a coating of vernix, the white fatty substance that protects their skin in utero – and if this is required, a paste of Sudocrem and oil is carefully applied.
When it was time to film Santana’s scene, Natalie watched on a monitor. The baby murmured briefly, when she was carried into the bright light of the set, but soon settled. Helen George, who plays Trixie, handed her to the actress playing her mother, who cradled her lovingly, and after Philippa called “Cut!”, there was the usual sound of all the male technicians clearing their throats and blowing their noses.
“It was weird to see her handed to someone else,” admits Natalie. “But it’s lovely just looking at her. It would have been fantastic to have done the same with all the other children,” she says.
Extracted from Heidi Thomas' book, The Life and Times of Call the Midwife. To order a copy for £14 (usually £20) with free p&p, call 01603 648176.
Call the Midwife continues on Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC1