Call the Midwife series 4 preview: “The world’s changing, one woman at a time”

Writer and creator Heidi Thomas talks new cast members, slow social change and why Call the Midwife will never become a soap

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BBC1 is poised to deliver another dose of mewling newborns, cobbled streets and homespun charm this Sunday evening with the return of Call the Midwife. So we caught up with Heidi Thomas, the lovely and intimidatingly eloquent writer behind the period drama, to find out what’s going on in series four… 

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A new decade dawned during the Christmas special, leaving our Nonnatus nuns and midwives teetering on the edge of the swinging sixties. But that doesn’t mean series four will be full of mini skirts, platform boots and PVC. Or that the sexual revolution and the contraceptive pill are about to take Poplar by storm.

“The world didn’t go from black and white to colour at midnight on the 1st January 1960,” Thomas tells us. “Throughout the series we’ve been addressing this very slow and gradual progression of social change, which ultimately will ignite into something much bigger in the middle of the 1960s. At the moment we’re seeing those sort of changes being played out on a personal level.”

“I am in the business of telling stories about the experience of women in the 20th century – that’s my personal manifesto – about the ways women’s lives connected with the state and with society and the way their relationships work out within the domestic personal setting as well. When you look at it like that, it’s like this wonderful Rubik’s cube of possibilities.”

For Thomas, it’s important that the show stays true to historical records and doesn’t let social changes sweep into Poplar overnight.

Her mantra for series four was, “The world’s changing, one woman at a time,” adding that the upcoming episodes see women “challenging, questioning” and starting to lay down “building blocks for the great bridge of progress.” 

The show (which stars Miranda Hart, Jenny Agutter and Helen George as just some of those women) is no longer based on the memoirs of midwife Jennifer Worth – they were bound to run out at some point – but Thomas has had little trouble coming up with new, touching and engaging tales, or “memorials to how life was lived at the time” as she puts it.

“I do a lot of historic research. We have a strong relationship with the original nuns, and we’ve interviewed a lot of midwives from the period,” she says. “I genuinely believe we could go on with it for quite a while. The 60s are very stimulating.”

In fact, she even has plans – of a sort – for series five, which the BBC has already commissioned: “Gosh, imagine 1962. Trixie can get pantyhose. I could get an episode out of that!”

“What you don’t want is for people either working on the show or watching the show to feel that things are being taken for granted,” Thomas says. “You constantly have to find ways of just keeping the energy up, keeping our sense of integrity. I never want this to become soap. It is a medical drama and we define ourselves as a medical drama so I want to keep those standards up all the time.”

Which is why she’s glad that series four sees the cast “refreshed” by new faces Nurse Barbara Gilbert (Charlotte Ritchie) and Nurse Phyllis Crane (Linda Bassett), who are poised to fill the hole left by Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) and Cynthia (Bryony Hannah). 

“The nuns were always a constant in that convent and the young nurses actually didn’t stay,” says Thomas. “The real Jennifer Worth wasn’t at Nonnatus House as long as Jessica Raine was.”

“Call the Midwife is a bit like a clock. You take the back off it and it’s full of all these little cogs that operate in conjunction with one another. Any one character will brush up against three or four other characters in the course of their daily life, and what really keeps that clock ticking is keeping it fresh and shiny and bright and not letting it get dusty or stale. So it’s working very well for us at the moment that we’ve got a couple of new faces this time.” 

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Call the Midwife returns on Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC1