Screenwriter Heidi Thomas knew she had a hit on her hands with Call the Midwife when an elderly man approached her in her local supermarket. He wanted to say thank you. When his children had been born in the 50s, he was kept outside the room. His wife had never wanted to talk about it, but after watching Call the Midwife every week, they were able to have a conversation for the first time.
Heidi Thomas tells me this story after I ask her why she thinks Call the Midwife has been so phenomenally successful. The audience for the opening episode of the second series last month was 9.3 million, on a par with Downton Abbey. The first series ended on a high of 11 million.
Period dramas with great frocks always make for good comfort viewing on a Sunday night in the winter. There’s much nostalgic pleasure to be derived from those 1950s dresses and hearing people talk about having Spam for tea. But more important is the primal response many of us have when we watch a baby being born.
The day I gave birth to my son was one of the happiest of my life, so curling up on the sofa with an episode of Call the Midwife triggers an almost Pavlovian response in me. As soon as I see a little scrunched-up creature blinking into the daylight and uttering its first wail, my eyes well up.
Apparently, the set is awash with tears whenever they film a birth scene. Heidi assures me that burly cameramen and electricians are always “getting something in their eyes”. She tends to cry in the edit suite once they’ve put the music on. “Peter Salem is our composer and his scores always get me going,” she says. “The edit suite has a wooden floor and was wet after we watched the Christmas special.”
We’re swapping birth stories over afternoon tea in a plush London hotel. Like me, Heidi has just one child, a teenage boy born the same year. Both were pulled from our wombs with forceps, although her experience sounds a lot more painful than mine. She had gas and air. I gave birth in France where everyone has an epidural.
She says Call the Midwife enables people to have conversations that they couldn’t have before. I think she’s right – we met 15 minutes ago and I’m already telling her intimate details about my pelvic floor.
Getting enough newborn babies for Call the Midwife is a full time job. For the first series, they actively had to go out and recruit from maternity hospitals. Now the series is well known, they have plenty of mums volunteering their babies, but there are still problems getting the timing right. “We have someone who books the ladies while they’re still pregnant, because once babies have got past ten days old, they lose that scrunched-up look,” says Heidi.
A constant source of stress is babies arriving too early or late and missing their filming slot. Heidi recounts a story of one young man bursting into the production office panicked and pale-faced to tell them that somebody else’s waters had just gone and could they do something to stop these women going into labour early?
And it’s not just Mother Nature that’s problematic – Health and Safety and lengthy BBC guidelines mean a process of paperwork that takes up to a week after the baby is born. “Sometimes we’ve had to wrap a baby tightly in a shawl so it doesn’t look like a relaxed two-weeker,” confesses Heidi, who is not only the creator and scriptwriter of Call the Midwife but also the executive producer.
She’s fortunate to have someone at home whom she can talk to about all this. Dr Turner, the widowed GP in Call the Midwife, is played by her husband Stephen McGann who famously has three brothers (Paul, Mark and Joe) who are also actors.
It’s the first time the couple have worked together in 25 years. They met after he starred in one of her first plays at the Liverpool Playhouse. She chuckles when I ask about the casting couch, before assuring me that Stephen does not get to see the scripts before the other actors. “If he comes into my study while I’m working on them, I cover the screen. But it’s wonderful having a project that you can mull over with your partner, although I think our son gets fed up with it.”
It’s not for nothing that Heidi Thomas is known as the Queen of Primetime TV drama. She knows how to tell a story that will press collective buttons. Her many successes include Cranford, Lillies, Upstairs Downstairs and a BBC film adaptation of the Noel Streatfeild novel, Ballet Shoes.
She was born in Liverpool almost 50 years ago into a family of three children. Her youngest brother, David, was born with Down’s syndrome and Heidi adored him. “Having a sibling with Down’s was one of the greatest gifts of my life. I’m not saying it was easy for my parents. I was seven when he was born, so a lot of the difficult stuff went over my head. But children are like sundials; they record the happy hours. If there’s anything in me that’s kind or strong or good, it’s because of those childhood years when I had him as a vulnerable, funny, outrageous sibling.”
David died on the operating table undergoing heart surgery when he was 15. “For his funeral, the church was packed. Two hundred people turned out, which is amazing for a child whose life was so circumscribed by disability and ill health,” says Heidi. “His life was one lived on a small scale, but it had an enormous impact on everyone who knew him.” I feel my eyes welling up as she talks about him so I quickly plaster jam and clotted cream on a scone as a diversionary tactic. Heidi talks very fast and rarely pauses, but she does at this point.
When I get home that night after meeting her, my husband is listening to The Archers. One of the characters has just given birth to a daughter with Down’s. The village is split over how to react. Some people still feel very awkward when they meet a disabled child.
Heidi says having David as a brother made her more observant and intuitive: “He brought out the best but also the worst in people. I was always watching to see how others judged him. I was aware of their glances. I even went out with an awful boyfriend for much longer than I should because he was nice to David.”
This wasn’t the only tragedy the Thomas family had to endure. Five years earlier, Heidi’s father, who ran a small business, died suddenly. It left the family not only shocked and bereaved but also poor. One lasting effect of David’s illness on Heidi is an obsession with medicine.
Her brother’s short life was punctuated by frequent visits to hospital. He had his first heart surgery aged six. She would visit him after school and do her homework on the ward.
“I wanted to be a nurse but when I told the careers officer at my very academic grammar school, she said I was far to clever to be a nurse. ‘Fine then, I’ll be a doctor,’ I said. She replied, ‘I’m afraid you’re not clever enough for that.’”
I ask if she likes watching shows like Casualty or ER, but she prefers the real thing. Her guilty pleasure is watching Discovery’s Home and Health channel. “I love birth programmes. There’s a great American series I’m Pregnant and… having a dwarf or homeless or on drugs.” Home Birth Diaries is another and she says she’s watched every single birth on YouTube, which is quite an undertaking. Is this research, I ask. “No, it’s a compulsion,” she giggles. She has a round, smiley face framed by a short dark bob. I imagine she’s the sort of person that others confide in.
Heidi developed a good relationship with Jennifer Worth on whose memoirs Call the Midwife is based. “Jennifer came from a middle-class family. Her books were a clear-eyed view of a society she found shocking,” she says. “I wanted to keep that sense of moral confrontation.”
Jennifer Worth was a retired nurse in her 60s when she finally sat down to write, having been inspired by an article in a midwifery magazine lamenting the fact that midwives were invisible in literature. “Maybe,” wrote Terri Coates, now a medical consultant on the series, “there’s a midwife somewhere who can do for midwifery what James Herriot did for veterinary practice.”
Worth took up the challenge and lived long enough to see her three books become word-of-mouth bestsellers but died of cancer before the first programme was broadcast. She didn’t watch a lot of TV and was wary of handing over the rights, but after reading Heidi’s first two scripts she wrote her a note saying, “I leave this to you in confidence.”
Some of the characters and stories from Worth’s books are fragmentary and have been added to for TV. One example is from the Christmas special when an elderly homeless woman called Mrs Jenkins kneels at the grave of her children who all died in the workhouse. “Mrs Jenkins is a very powerful presence in the books,” says Heidi, “but her story was not resolved. I decided she needed some redemption so I wrote in that scene.”
The story of the Norwegian captain who kept his own daughter as a sex slave on board a ship to service the crew is also true, but needed fleshing out for TV. Also the other midwives don’t play a huge role in Worth’s books. Their back-stories had to be been invented by Heidi.
“What’s nice having eight episodes for this series rather than six last time is we can open out the secondary characters, including male ones like Dr Turner and Fred the handyman.”
What interested Jennifer Worth most about the prospect of her books being adapted was how they’d re-create the East End she’d known in 1950s, because it no longer exists. The old tenements were knocked down decades ago to make way for tower blocks that now dominate that part of London. The answer is CGI (computer-generated images). For instance they’ll film on location in a cobbled street then block out modern buildings in the background during post-production. They even use CGI to put smoke coming out of chimneys.
“In episode four of the new series we have a baby born with spina bifida so we used CGI to paint a lesion, a flesh wound on its back,” explains Heidi, “because you can’t submit a newborn baby to a complicated make-up job. It really does make our lives easier.”
I find myself asking anxiously what will happen when she’s exhausted all the stories from Jennifer Worth’s memoirs. “I will have done by the end of the second series,” she replies. “But don’t worry. It doesn’t mean the show will end. The characters will be well developed by then and Jennifer was happy for us to continue.” Phew, I think, plunging my teeth into a final scone.
Call the Midwife continues on Sundays at 8:00pm on BBC1