When Call the Midwife returns to our TV screens this Sunday evening, viewers will spot a few changes at Nonnatus House. Jenny Lee is long gone, and Cynthia’s religious realisation over Christmas means the midwives are a little understaffed.
Introducing: Nurse Barbara Gilbert, Poplar’s newest resident.
“She’s a brand new midwife,” explains Charlotte Ritchie, who plays Barbara. “She’s just recently qualified and she’s moved from Liverpool to London to train. She’s seen quite a few births as part of her training – up to 30 on her own and she’s been present at 60 or 70 – so she’s not exactly green, but, emotionally, she’s on her own now.
“She’s sent out a lot to deal with new people and new communities she hasn’t encountered before. It’s quite a new and scary time for her.”
Unlike when Jenny Lee first arrived in Poplar, Barbara is “not fazed by poverty or anything like that.”
“She grew up in Liverpool and her dad was a clergyman. He would go out to the men at the docks and the women in the laundry-houses, take their prayers and comfort them – and she would go out with him a lot of the time.”
Instead, it’s other kinds of new experiences that baffle the Nonnatus newbie. In one episode “she sees a samosa for the first time and has no idea what it is or how to eat it”, while the first instalment sees her undone by a new and exciting drink…
“Barbara’s quite naïve. Trixie kind of tricks her into thinking that her drink isn’t alcoholic and then gets her incredibly drunk. She’s probably never drunk before in her entire life. It’s incredibly mean!” Ritchie laughs, adding: “It’s a kind of initiation I suppose.”
And once ‘initiated’ into the ranks, Barbara, Trixie and Patsy “form a little gang.”
While series four sees Trixie caught up in her romance with curate Tom, Barbara is unlikely to be following in her footsteps anytime soon, reckons Ritchie: “She’s probably quite fascinated by the idea of men. I don’t get the impression she’s been galavanting off with them, but she’s 21, 22 and I’m sure she imagines it. I get the impression when she’s watching Trixie and Tom together that she’s sort of secretly admiring and basically hoping for the day she meets a nice young vicar!”
Before joining the cast Ritchie was an ardent Call the Midwife fan, who could never get through an episode without a box of tissues. And that hasn’t changed since she got in front of the camera.
“It’s the same. The only thing that’s absent is the music which I think is a real kick in the teeth. If you’re not quite crying then the music will come in and then you are!
“There are a couple of really traumatic storylines. You can’t really get around the fact that they are unbelievably sad,” she says. “But I’m a bit of a crier. I don’t know if I’m the best barometer for that!”
Tears aside, Ritchie’s passionate about the show’s message and depiction of the 1960s: “I think we underestimate how far things have come in such a sort space of time for women. Women still had leaflets about how best to serve their husbands.
“What’s so cool about Call the Midwife is that all these women have chosen to have a career. I think it’s easy to forget, especially because the show’s quite cosy, that there’s lots of female empowerment in it, because the main characters are so strong.
“You can forget it was a time where homophobia was rife, people were really intolerant about abortion – it was actually in many ways an intolerant time, even if the characters at Nonnatus house are compassionate and liberal.”
Working on the show has made Ritchie grateful for her life as a twenty-something in modern Britain, though she thinks “there’s still a long way to go for women.”
“What saddens me more is that a lot of what’s represented in 1960s East End is still the majority of women’s experience around the world, if not worse. It’s strange to think. We look back at the past and we go, ‘Oh how funny, how silly’ but it still occurs.”
Call the Midwife returns on Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC1