Heidi Thomas: “I write Christmas Call the Midwife for people who may not be having a brilliant time”

The show's writer and creator says she's always aware of the "sadder, frailer, more vulnerable side of the human experience at Christmas"

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Call the Midwife returns this Christmas Day for just its third seasonal special and it already feels like a festive telly tradition.

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“People seem to think it’s been going on for like twenty years,” says the show’s creator Heidi Thomas. “It’s lovely.”

This year, Midwife is set to live up to its reputation as thought-provoking and heart-warming drama. There will be giant Christmas trees, snowflake dances, mince pies and flaming puds. But there will also be a side order of sorrow, struggle and distress. 

As well as following the midwives’ Christmas preparations, the episode features a storyline about a badly run mother-and-baby home full of vulnerable young women who are giving up their newborns, often against their will.

“It just seemed the perfect thing,” says Thomas. “At the end of the day, Christmas is a story about an unmarried mother. The reference is obvious and it’s there.”

“I was born in 1962 so I’m sort of slightly post-Call The Midwife – although I was delivered by nuns – but in the 1970s when I was growing up, the stigma around unmarried mothers was still such that a girl in my class wasn’t allowed to go out with a particular boy because his sister was an unmarried mother. It was as though the whole family was sort of tainted with moral corruption because of that. And it’s stayed with me over the years.

“I wanted to go back and look at how these girls were dealt with in society because it’s so different form anything we know today. As we move into the 1960s… we’re starting to see that attitudes will change, albeit slowly. So for example one of our regular characters has her own attitude changed by spending time in the mother and baby home,” she says, adding: “I think that’s what we’ll be showing: massive social change on a very personal scale.”

Another heart-wrenching storyline follows a couple who have recently been released from a mental hospital, and are struggling to cope in the Poplar community. 

“A new mental health act came into being in 1958, mental hospitals were closing, and these were often very big Victorian institutions with large populations that were basically just put out into the world where it is assumed the new social services and welfare state will look after them, and there was a disconnect.” 

“A really good period drama can shine a light on the day we live in today,” says Thomas. “I think it’s important to see how far we’ve come and how far we’ve not come.”

And Christmas, believe it or not, is a great time to shine a light on those troubling tales. 

“I always write my Christmas Call the Midwife for the people who may not be having a brilliant Christmas,” says Thomas. “I can remember one Christmas years ago… my stepfather was dying of cancer; we knew he had weeks to live. My grandmother’s dementia had accelerated very rapidly. So we had rather an early Christmas lunch and then my mum and I took my grandmother’s dog for a walk. I always remember we were walking down a nice suburban street near where we lived and through every lighted window we could see families having what looked like the perfect Christmas. Ours was really tough – and I can just remember this lump in my throat, thinking, ‘I wish I was I was having one of those Christmases.'”

“And yet the reality is, a lot of people don’t have those Christmases. And I think it’s very important that each Christmas special we’ve done does deal with the sadder, frailer, more vulnerable side of the human experience.”

“I think that’s been appreciated, for all the years that we’ve been doing them – these many decades of Call The Midwives!”

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Call the Midwife returns on Christmas Day at 7:50pm on BBC1