Call the Midwife’s Stephen McGann: GPs often ask me to stop Doctor Turner smoking

The Poplar doctor is set to face some home truths about the effects of smoking in episode five, a realisation that "has been coming," says star Stephen McGann

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Doctor Turner is never far from a fug of fag smoke, but that’s all about to change. This weekend’s episode of Call the Midwife sees the Poplar GP face some home truths about the consequences of his constant smoking. 

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“It’s been coming for Doctor Turner,” Stephen McGann tells RadioTimes.com. “In the 1950s they were beginning to suss out the effects of smoking. There was a famous British Medical Journal study done. They wanted thousands of smokers to take part in a long-term survey and they wanted professional people who could be relied on to give good data. Who did they go to? The doctors. Our understanding was actually increased by the Doctor Turners of the world.”

When it comes to the realisation that smoking is life-threatening, “it’s hard for Doctor Turner to make that link,” says McGann. “It’s a tough one, but it’s really good to see.” 

Turner’s smoking days “could be numbered,” teases McGann. And it’s a storyline which will please a lot of viewers, particularly those who are part of the medical community… 

“Very often doctors will come up to me, with good reason, and say, ‘Please can you drop the smoking?'” McGann explains. “I do get what they are saying. I’m not a smoker myself and I understand, but I say, ‘It’s authentic. It’s what he would have done.’

“People often talk about accuracy in historical dramas. Is some accuracy different from other accuracy? Of course, we haven’t ignored Doctor Turner’s smoking. It will come home to roost.”

But for a non-smoker, Turner’s constant puffing is less than ideal for McGann. “If I really had to smoke all the time I would just say no,” he admits. “They are herbal cigarettes, not nicotine. They are disgusting, but they are not nicotine. We don’t rehearse with them and when we come to film it’s a dramatic slight of hand. It looks like I am smoking more than I really am.” 

McGann even apologises before his character lights up – and it’s an incentive to get his scenes done in as few takes as possible. “I say sorry to the crew, I light one of these disgusting things up, everyone goes, ‘Eurgh, god’, I get it over as soon as possible, I apologise again and I put the thing out.”

“It’s amazing, since the smoking ban, how quickly we’ve all got out of that disgusting fug. When I think of what we used to tolerate, on the top of a bus for example, it was terrible.” 

Turner’s cigarette addiction is an interesting storyline for Call the Midwife because it’s still very much a medical issue we are struggling with today. “Smoking was a terrible cause of illness and death and it’s still a monumental cause of illness and death. We certainly don’t shy away from that,” says McGann. 

“But the trouble is these other illnesses haven’t gone either,” he adds. “Measles keeps breaking out again because we are getting complacent. We think antibiotics will live forever, they won’t. We think vaccinations are an option, that you don’t have to bother because no one gets these things anymore, but these illnesses are still there. It’s been a long time since Call the Midwife’s era, just long enough for people to forget what it was we were fighting and why.”

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Call the Midwife continues on Sundays at 8:00pm on BBC1