Stephen McGann: Call the Midwife isn’t about nostalgia, it’s a warning

"This isn’t nostalgia for the good old days... we should never go back there,” says the actor who plays Doctor Turner


Trawling actors’ fan sites online is usually about as interesting as listening to a Miss World acceptance speech or a home-team query at Prime Minister’s Question Time. There are only so many times you can read “OMG” before you start to feel dizzy and a little sick. Which is why it’s such a surprise to stumble across pages paying tribute to Stephen McGann, whose extensive online female fanbase like to call him “the Human Disaster”.


Wait… what? These are his fans, right? But yes, Google it and you’ll see the eponymous tumblr feed where the devoted post a curious mix of pictures, dedicated adoration and exasperated despair at his wardrobe selection – “His suit doesn’t fit,” one recent post read. “And his hair might have lost a battle with a low-flying pigeon. How is he somehow still good-looking? It is the unfathomable nature of the Human Disaster.”

It’s still more of a surprise to read McGann’s affectionate Twitter responses – chiding, bantering and deeply self-mocking, particularly when he catches himself dancing to 80s music alone at home. Actors tend to take themselves way too seriously – but when the subject of the Human Disaster tag is raised, McGann seems genuinely delighted.

“I love that,” he grins with the slightest trace of a blush. “They call me a dork and they call me this and that, but I think that’s absolutely brilliant. I’m 51 years old. If I can’t be a dork to the younger generation then I’m doing something wrong.”

For what it’s worth, his wardrobe choices today are far from catastrophic, lacking the rumple and chaos that he sports as Dr Patrick Turner in Call the Midwife, set in London’s East End in the 1950s. As Poplar’s local physician and endearing widower, he has struggled with the competing demands of raising his son, Tim, defying bureaucratic red tape to improve local heath care and falling in love with a nun who’s already married to the Lord of Hosts. 

Indeed, McGann’s renewed reputation as a sex symbol has more than a little to do with the so-called Turnadette romance with Sister Burnadette (Laura Main). Having renounced holy orders for his love, she’s now Shelagh Turner – the couple tied the knot in the recent Christmas special. It’s never straightforward in Call the Midwife, however.

“Shelagh is a young woman who’s gone through such an incredible change, marries a man older than herself and is suddenly cast into this world of the marital dream.” McGann gives a wry shrug. “It’s not full of conflict, but it’s full of challenge. What I found really clever about the series is that there’s no happy ever after – because in real life there never is.”

He sees echoes of his own mother in Shelagh. “She was a 50s girl,” he explains. “She was married young to a man older than herself. She once said to me, ‘I loved your father but I didn’t really know him.’ There was no premarital sex, no relationships. You made your bed and you lay in it.

“My dad, like many men, had fought a war – he was mentioned in dispatches. Many of those men were traumatised, shell-shocked, and there’s a great untold story of how the women tried to wrest these poor b*****ds back to some kind of normality. They might get beaten along the way, but ever so gently they helped them recover while gradually liberating themselves, saying, ‘This way of doing things doesn’t quite do it for me any more. I’d like a bit more than this.’ It’s not girl power, it was something better than that.”

He talks about family a lot – he’s married to Heidi Thomas, the writer who created Midwife. But then family has always been important to him. At 51, he is the youngest of the McGann brothers – including Withnail & I and Doctor Who star Paul and The Upper Hand star Joe – who have been breaking British hearts since the early 1980s. The McGanns aren’t really a family firm, but they do look after each other.

“About every six or seven years someone gets a bright idea and tries to put us all in something together,” he laughs. “There were two record deals, a play or two and The Hanging Gale [a 1995 TV series], which was our own idea. Nothing at the moment, but it’s always nice to work with them. We don’t see each other as much as we should these days, so it’s a good way to catch up with everyone.”

Perhaps they’re close because they grew up in tough, inner-city Liverpool – near Toxteth, where the early 1980s riots kicked off. “It was rough,” he nods. “It could be hairy. But it was working-class respectable. They were clearing the slums when we were growing up and we played in the derelict houses. It’s all changed now – but I don’t buy into nostalgia. Nostalgia is incontinent, it’s fantasy. I don’t think anyone wants to go back. I certainly don’t.”

That sounds a little strange coming from one of the Midwife cast, I venture. “Midwife isn’t about nostalgia for the days of polio and hunger; it’s celebrating values from that era – and those values can remain if we want them to,” he insists. “I was born in the 1960s in a postwar experiment that took people who had been poor, illiterate, living in cramped houses and, post-Attlee, made things better. You look at Midwife and you can see the health of the nation changing for the better.

“But what counted for me and my brothers – and mates of ours like David Morrissey and Ian Hart, all growing up in Dingle and Toxteth – was the real change in education.”

Like the rest of his brothers, Stephen won a place at a local Catholic grammar school. “We had one shot and we made it: none of us would be actors if we hadn’t gone to that school. That’s where I fell in love with acting and that’s why I’m here.” From school he moved south in 1982, working with his brothers on the 50s-inspired musical Yakety Yak.

Although he’s worked steadily ever since, it has seemed like he was struggling to equal the success of Paul and Joe in particular. He beavered away in soaps, the odd intense drama like The Hanging Gale and strong theatre work. At one point he went back to school, retaking his A-levels and ultimately completing a masters in science communication at Imperial College. He was just planning his PhD when Midwife came along. It may have helped that his wife created the show, but he’s proved he’s not just her plus-one ever since.

It must seem slightly weird when he finds elements of his own life in the script, however. One of the first big challenges the Turners face as newlyweds – the struggle to conceive and the misery of possible infertility when Shelagh discovers she can’t have a child – echoes the struggle Stephen and Heidi faced after hoping for years to have a baby and almost giving up on becoming parents, when their son Dominic came along, some 16 years ago.

“I don’t like to go there particularly,” he frowns and considers, then nods decisively. “I think that the general thing I learnt was that having a child is not a right – we think too many things are a right these days. So many people I know have had complications. We found, ‘Oh, OK, so conception isn’t happening then… why?’ For us it was simple procedure. We were lucky to have one kid – we’re very lucky, frankly. I’ll take those odds right to the cashier, you know. It was the most amazing thing for me and I’ve never regretted that. But there are many people out there who’ve not been so lucky.”

Dominic, says McGann with some pride, now wants to be a scientist. “Whenever I wind him up too much and whenever he gets angry he says, “OK, I’ll be an actor then’,” he laughs. “I go ‘Nooooooo’ across the table. He does it with a wry smile. He’s good, too. He’s a great singer. But, he’s just passionate about science.”

Why don’t you want him to become an actor? He looks serious for a moment. “I’m not into nostalgia as I said, but I think things are changing for the worse right now,”he muses. “The sums don’t add up. When I was growing up, we had theatres open that aren’t open now. We had opportunities in adverts that aren’t open now. We had films that don’t get made. We had television pumping out of all kinds of studios that aren’t there any more. It’s simply economics. If you make something for half the amount per hour you used to make it, you’re not going to pay the actors twice as much.”

He stops, thinks, sighs and runs his hands through his tousled locks. “Look, Midwife – we watch that and know from history that everything is going to get better, right?” he explains. “Health, the Pill, the diseases – that’s all going away. Sometimes today it feels like we’re going the other way. Opportunities are closing down. If you’re a messy kid from a council estate today, I think the chances of you making it as a successful actor are a lot worse than they were.

“I love it when people take things from Midwife – we’re a pre-watershed show handling delicate themes like poverty, abortion and women’s rights for a large mainstream audience. We’re talking about the past with very modern stories. But one of the things I hope people take away from it is that this isn’t nostalgia for the good old days. It’s also a warning – we should never go back there again.”

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