Victoria Yeates: Call the Midwife is so feminist – it makes me want to vote

The actress who plays Sister Winifred on how not wearing makeup on set is "freeing" and how the drama has inspired her to embark on her own midwifery mission...

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Victoria Yeates is best known as Sister Winifred in Call the Midwife, not that you’d recognise her out of her wimple. The redhead undergoes quite a transformation to play the quiet and retiring nun. 

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“It’s totally out of my casting. I definitely would be more the Trixie character normally,” she tells RadioTimes.com. “It’s very interesting as an actress, to go into the makeup department and come out looking worse.” 

It was daunting at first, but now she says giving up the “female film star burden of how you look” is “freeing.” 

“I think it limits actresses if they are scared to look ugly. I don’t care what I look like. I only have 20 minutes in makeup to put my hair up and put on a bit of foundation. Even though I hope the next thing I do is ridiculously and horribly glamorous, I think that it’s nice to not have those concerns on set and just think about your acting.” 

Red curls aside, playing the smily and sweet nun has been a “real challenge” because Sister Winifred is a closed book. 

“All we knew was that she’d been a teacher in the country. That was it. We didn’t really know who she was. To be honest the first year and this year have been really trying to work out who this woman is.” 

Like many others she still can’t believe how popular Call the Midwife has become – “It’s so weird what a success this show about nuns and babies is” – but she loves that the period drama educates as well as entertains. 

“Educational purpose and social history is a massive thing. But because it’s set in 1960, you get a good distance from what’s going on, even though you get emotional and you’re in the story. Because of that period drama distance it becomes not didactic in its approach. It’s showing a situation in the 60s that is still relevant and it’s something that’s going to maybe change [viewers opinions] as well.

“I felt really proud watching last week[‘s homosexual storyline] thinking, ‘I’m in a show that does that’. I think this series is going more along that vein. It’s a good thing.”

Yeates couldn’t be accused of taking her role in the drama, or her place as a woman in the 21st century, for granted: “It makes you feel really thankful. It makes you want to vote. The whole show is mainly women and it’s hardly ever that you are just surrounded by women on a TV show. It is so feminist. [But] it’s 2015 and that’s still rare now; I’m lucky to be part of that.” 

She’s signed up for another series of Call the Midwife and is “already looking forward” to getting back on set. 

“I’ve got a lot more to do next year. We know who Winifred is now and where we want to go with her. There’s something really concrete to work with and explore.”

In the meantime, she’s keeping busy.

“I’m making a documentary,” she tells us. “I’m going to Burma to follow these midwives who teach people midwifery skills in the middle of nowhere. Women walk for 10 days to come and see them. There’s no electricity, no running water, no hospitals, no doctors. There is nothing there. They give them a basic birth pack and teach them really basic midwifery skills. The midwifes are just normal women who have learned how to give birth from their mums and their grandmas, so these are pretty amazing women.” 

She was prompted to “use the the other half of my brain – the intellectual side” by the women behind Call the Midwife, Pippa Harris and Heidi Thomas: “They are really interesting women. I got quite inspired.” 

And while she’s “not going to go and burn my bra in the street”, she likes the idea that Call the Midwife keeps feminism “going in a really positive way.” 

“These few women have written a show that is on in 200 countries all over the world. It’s had however many million viewers – if they can do it, so can you.” 

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