There’s an air of 1950s chic about Heidi Thomas. With her immaculate tailoring, cashmere and pearls, the award-winning creator and writer of BBC1’s Call the Midwife could walk on set and mingle seamlessly with the characters she refers to as “family”.
“I just don’t feel that I can treat Midwife like any other show I’ve been involved in,” says Thomas, whose previous credits include dramatisations of Cranford, Ballet Shoes and Madame Bovary. “I feel so strongly about the issues we cover that it’s become a sort of cause. And people love it so much. We’ve got a lot of fans who expect certain things from the show – my great dread is that I would ever disappoint them.”
This seems unlikely. Seven million viewers tuned in for the Call the Midwife Christmas special and the third series promises exciting developments for the nurses and nuns of Nonnatus House. On some matters, however, Thomas is strict. “We’ve never had sex in Midwife and we never shall. We have the consequences of it, certainly, but I always try to look at things within the historic context. In the East End of the1950s–or so a lot of people have told us– children playing out in the street would see the midwives arrive and they thought the babies came in the box on the back of the bike. We’re not a soap, we’re a medical drama, but we do tell a story about women in the 1950s and it’s quite nice to show these rather chaste romances, which are so different from the ones girls have today. It’s important, as well, always to acknowledge that the Call the Midwife stories were based, originally, on memoir, and that they’re always looked at through the filter of hindsight.”
The switch from “real-life” stories set down by the late Jennifer Worth in her bestselling books to original scenarios by Thomas and her team has been gradual and carefully managed.
“It has actually been a very organic process. I feel, in some ways, as though we left the books behind a long time ago and I also feel that we’ll carry them with us for ever,” says Thomas. “This was my first experience of working with a living author, and I suppose it was a bit like an arranged marriage. It could have gone horribly wrong, but I respected Jennifer from the off – she was one of the most brilliantly clever women I have ever met – and she gave me great licence to do what was necessary to make the material sing as a drama.
“When Jennifer was diagnosed with terminal cancer two months before we started filming, I went to visit her; I thought it would be a quick ten minutes – ‘I love you and goodbye’ – but looking back it was a sort of planning meeting. She gave me pointers. She wanted me to go and meet the nuns, who are now based in Birmingham, and to develop a relationship with them. They’re good friends of mine now.
“Of course,” continues Thomas, who speaks – and, you suspect, thinks – at warp speed, “when we did the first series, we had no clear idea it would ever return and we used up a huge proportion of original material from the books. From the beginning of series two we were creating new stories and new material, often based on historic events and true life. We have a huge archive now of oral history and testimony about life in the 1950s in the East End, both within the midwifery profession and outside of it.”
Much of the new material was gathered from fans of the show: “After series one, a lot of midwives, retired midwives especially, felt very moved by the series and as though their own experiences had been validated. We often heard from mums, too, who said, “That’s exactly what it was like when I had my babies at home’ and we made follow-up emails and calls to most of these women. We had a lovely researcher and she goes round interviewing people, many of them in their 80s or 90s, who want to share their stories with us. So we’ve got all that down on paper and it’s a fantastic resource.”
As the show gathered momentum, central characters were also developed beyond Worth’s original concept. In the new series, the hugely popular Chummy (Miranda Hart) makes a return to the newly relocated Nonnatus House, while Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) remains a powerful guiding force.
“In the books,” Thomas points out, “Sister Julienne is almost a peripheral character. She’s quoted and she’s there, but generally in a spiritual context. You don’t really see a great deal of her relationship with the other nurses and you never see her going out on a case. Obviously the Jenny Agutter character does all of those things, but we’ve tried to do it very sensitively and Jenny has a correspondence with the family of Sister Jocelyn [the nun on whom Sister Julienne was based] who died in the late 80s.”
Set in 1959, series three chronicles key developments in public health. “By this stage,” explains Thomas, “the NHS was up and running in the most spectacular way and I love showing that aspect of things. I think some doctors felt overworked. Others felt very empowered, and that’s the route we’ve taken with Dr Turner [played by Thomas’s husband, Stephen McGann]. He has always worked in this kick- scrabble community with poor sanitation and the ever-present risk of infection, but now he’s got penicillin and I make a point of the fact that he prescribes penicillin at every opportunity.
“Because of course that’s part of the story we have now; antibiotics were prescribed for absolutely everything, without circumspection, which is why they’re not working now. So we’re telling a little bit of medical history with Dr Turner and his holy war of antibiotics. We also cover vaccination, which we now take for granted, but I grew up in the 1960s and I remember a lot of children of my own age or slightly older who were in callipers because they had polio. I’ve kind of lived through that change and I enjoy reflecting on that and thinking about how far we’ve come.”
One forthcoming episode has particular resonance for Thomas. “My brother was born with Down’s syndrome in 1970 – sadly, he died in 1985 – and my mother was one of the first generation to rear a severely disabled child at home. Before that the practice had been to put such children into institutions. So we have a love story between two people living in a home – a young lady who has Down’s syndrome and a character reprised from the last series who has cerebral palsy. When we cover what you might broadly term an ‘issue’, we like to bring the relevant body on board, and we give them script approval. So if they say, ‘We feel that this misrepresents this issue,’ we would look into that and make the necessary changes. Because cerebral palsy and Down’s syndrome haven’t gone away. We deal with them in a much more enlightened way, but it is still a challenge for any mother of a child who is born with these issues. And we do always get a lovely postbag around this.”
The long reach of history is a recurrent theme. “I have become very interested in a field of science called epigenetics, which believes our brains are imprinted by the experience of earlier generations,” Thomas explains. “I feel that a well-written period drama will shed light on the way we live today. It also provides a safe environment to discuss issues that are timeless. Because Call the Midwife is a period drama, people don’t have to engage with the issues we discuss in a deep, serious way if they don’t want to. If they want to scoop the top layer off, the way we might scoop the cream off a trifle and say, ‘I’m just going to enjoy the music and clothes and the babies and the funny old men,’ that’s a totally valid way of enjoying the show. Others like a little bit of grit with their food and they really like the fact that we dig deeper and invite them into the darker side of life. It’s to do with tone, I think, as much as with content. And I know it sounds sentimental, or possibly a bit surprising, but ultimately, it’s done with love.”
The awards – and the viewers – keep on coming, but Thomas’s best accolade has been the honorary doctorate in literature she received in December from Edge Hill University in Lancashire. “I got my degree on the day the midwives were graduating and it was just the most fantastic thing. The head of midwifery told me that applications have gone sky high since Call the Midwife started, which means they can take the very best applicants. All the midwives got first class degrees and I was just so proud to be in the same ceremony as them.
“I haven’t heard,” she adds, “that there has been an increase in people wanting to be nuns. Maybe,” she purrs, demure as any novice, “I just haven’t been informed.”
Call the Midwife, Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC1