SPOILERS! Do not read on unless you have seem series seven, episode seven
Call the Midwife’s devoted fans have had their hearts tossed up and down throughout the show’s six-year history – but few storylines have had more dramatic highs and lows than that of newlyweds Tom and Barbara. They returned to Poplar more than halfway through this series, seemingly for good, only for Barbara to catch meningitis and die.
It has been a time of highs and lows, too, for Jack Ashton, 35, who plays Call the Midwife’s vicar, Tom Hereward. In real life he couldn’t be happier, after his partner Helen George took a break from playing Nurse Trixie Franklin to give birth to their daughter last autumn. Wren Ivy had only just been born when Ashton filmed last week’s heartbreaking episode.
“We did all Barbara’s deathbed scenes in the hospital two days after Wren was born and I hadn’t slept, so finding the delirium and the madness was quite easy,” he explains, noting that it’s been exactly a year since the Radio Times cover celebrating Tom and Barbara’s wedding.
“Filming those scenes was emotional because we all love Charlotte [Ritchie, who plays Barbara]. We knew we were acting – but we also knew we were saying goodbye…” He pauses. “It’s emotional thinking about it now… I was lamenting the loss of someone I care about and I’d just had a baby, so I started sobbing… with snot and tears everywhere. The director asked if I could stop and cry for the next take, but I didn’t think I could stop crying at all – I definitely couldn’t stop and start again – so I said, ‘You might have to see what you can do with that take’.”
After last Sunday’s episode, viewers were stunned – they’d been telling Ashton on Twitter how pleased they were that Ritchie was back. But even the cast hadn’t had a huge amount of time to prepare for the parting. “We were aware that Char would be going at some point, but we didn’t know for sure until we got the scripts,” he says. “But if Radio Times readers are shell-shocked, we do end the series this week on a lighter note – poignant, still emotional, but a lighter note.”
Could that possibly involve Tom getting back together with his old flame Trixie?
He bursts out laughing. “No… can you imagine?” he says. “I don’t think he would be forgiven if he was looking at potential suitors at his wife’s wake. Tom is grieving and will be grieving for some time. Men at that time were quite buttoned-up, but I thought, ‘He’s just got married. He’s in love. He’s got the whole world ahead of him, and then this fells him.’ It’s a really, really sad end.”
What does he mean by “end”? Will Tom not be returning to Call the Midwife next year?
He’s cagey. “We shall see,” he smiles. “Maybe he’s in series eight and maybe he isn’t.”
For Ashton, of course, Call the Midwife marked a new beginning for both his career and his personal life. He met Helen George on set in 2013 and they got together while shooting the 2016 Christmas special in South Africa. But this life-changing turn of events nearly didn’t happen, because he auditioned for the drama in the middle of a career slump. “I was starting to lose the faith,” he admits. “When you’re working you feel so confident, and then every day that goes by without work you start to persuade yourself that you can’t act because you’re not acting. If you’re unemployed and really need the job, they can tell you’re a little bit desperate.”
At the Midwife audition he was convinced his desperation had shown. He read the part once and they said, “Thank you, we’ll be in touch.” As he walked out of the room they all burst out laughing – “and I thought I didn’t have a chance. Two days later they offered me the part.”
He still seems amazed that it’s all worked out. Born in Bristol to an artist dad and a mum who worked in education, he ambled through “a pretty bog-standard comprehensive school”. When he was leaving school, aged 16, his favourite subjects were PE and drama, so his careers adviser suggested becoming an actor or a soldier. He tried out both. “I really enjoyed the Army open day – I liked the idea of getting fit and the assault courses,” he smiles. “And I was so naive I hadn’t even considered you could act for a living. But then I went to an open day for a performing arts college, and I was like – hold on, we just do this all day, every day? This is for me.”
His Bristol accent sneaks into his voice every now and again – even on set. “We film six months on and six months off,” he explains. “I’m a Bristol City fan and, for the first week or so, if I’ve been to a game at the weekend and we’re doing an emotional scene, they’ll have to cut and say, ‘Can you not sound like you’re from Bristol? Because Tom’s not.’ I have to take a minute to get rid of that West Country lilt.”
He has Tom’s back story in a little book that he reads to help him get back into character – although he tries not to let his partner see. “If Helen saw me reading my book, she’d say, ‘You’ve been doing this for five years!’” he laughs. “But that’s our relationship. We take the mickey out of each other all the time. What’s great is, she understands the stress of acting and how an intense role can alter your personality at home while you’re doing it – which is a difficult thing.”
Currently he’s touring in a stage production of Strangers on a Train – the Patricia Highsmith novel famously filmed by Alfred Hitchcock. Jack’s nice-guy character is forced into a double murder by the charismatic Bruno. “The play is angsty from the word go and it’s hard to just switch it off, but Helen gets it.”
Balancing the tour and being a new father has been complicated. “For the first six weeks, Helen and Wren and the dog came with me,” he grins. “It wasn’t so much fun for Helen because I spent time with adults every evening while she looked after the baby, but we’ve done the hard part now and for most of the tour I can commute.”
His delight at being a dad is obvious. Wren is five months old (“She went on to solid food last week – wonderful days of fatigue and joy”) and family is hugely important. He has two sisters and his mum, but his adored father died in 2009, just as Jack got his first good role in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire, starring Rachel Weisz, at London’s Donmar Warehouse.
“He was ill at the time, but he knew I was in it – he’d always encouraged me to read and go to the theatre,” Ashton says. “A lot of the time as a teenager I was unimpressed, but his thirst for knowledge and curiosity for life stuck with me. He never made me feel I couldn’t do anything.”
After Ashton’s father died, the family paid for a bench in his name at Bristol’s Greville Smyth Park. “My dad was a lot older – the age of most people’s grandads – and he’d tell me about the American GIs playing baseball in that park in 1944. His bench looks down on where the baseball pitch was, so there’s quite a nice symmetry.”
Coincidentally, Ashton has just finished a film, for a Utah-based company, in which he plays an American GI prisoner of war. “Call the Midwife has a huge following in the Midwest, so everyone knew who I was – which was very strange,” he laughs. “It’s not as big as Downton Abbey was, but it got me a US manager.”
For now, however, he’s staying close to home. Inspired by acting in Strangers on a Train, he will run the London marathon for the male suicide charity Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM). “I make a bucket collection for them after every Saturday matinée,” he says. “I make a speech about how suicide is the biggest killer of men under 45 in this country.”
He also hopes to make a documentary for the charity. He had school friends who lost their lives to depression or drugs. “I’d like to ask some questions, interview people who have been affected and try to find out why it happens,” he says. “That’s my project while I’m looking after Wren – I’d like to do something I’m curious about, that could help in some way.”
It sounds as if the Rev Tom Hereward is rubbing off on him. “Maybe he is…” he laughs.