Unusually for a Sunday night period drama, Call the Midwife doesn’t shy away from serious issues – and episode one of the next series will depict the birth of a thalidomide baby.
“Since the series became established, people were saying to us, when are you going to do thalidomide?” writer Heidi Thomas told an audience at Radio Times Festival on Saturday. “It was something we wanted to do with the utmost sense of emotional and historic responsibility.”
“What really shocked me when I started doing my research two years ago was that thalidomide babies were being born but it was a couple of years before people started to join the dots,” she continued. “And that’s a trajectory that our drama plot-line reflects.
“We have a thalidomide baby born in the first episode of this series and as the series unfolds more questions are being asked. What you’ll find when this episode is shown is that the word thalidomide is never used or referenced because nobody understands the connection or cause at that point.”
Thalidomide was first marketed as a sedative or sleeping pill in 1957 in West Germany under the name Contergan, but started to be prescribed for pregnant women when it was found to help nausea and morning sickness. In the UK, the drug was licensed in 1958 under the name Distaval.
It was subsequently found to harm the development of unborn babies and cause serious birth defects, especially if taken in the first four to eight weeks of pregnancy. The drug led to the arms or legs of the babies being very short or imperfectly formed. Other side effects included deformed eyes, ears and hearts. In the late 50s and early 60s over 10,000 children were born with thalidomide-related disabilities worldwide. Around 40% of thalidomide babies died at or shortly after birth. The drug was withdrawn in 1961 before the UK government issued a warning in May 1962.
Thalidomide first made an appearance in Call the Midwife in the finale of series four, when Doctor Turner prescribed it for a pregnant mother suffering from a serious form of morning sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum.
“It’s a story, which is still going on to this day,” said executive producer Pippa Harris. “It’s not something set in aspic in the past. I think we feel very strongly that it’s an issue that should still be in the public consciousness and discussed and as much done as possible.
“You’ll see the effects of thalidomide the drug on the mothers and on the children they gave birth to, but also on their families and on the people who prescribed it. It’s very easy to overlook the fact that clearly for the doctor who prescribed this drug for the women, that’s a pretty devastating discovery when they realise what they’ve done.”
A specially made prosthetic baby was used to film the scene in episode one.
“To be honest, we’re [usually] a bit casual with [prosthetic babies],” said Thomas. “The midwife shouts at us: ‘Stop carrying that baby round by its arm!’ But this little baby affected by thalidomide is called baby Susan in the script and we called her Baby Susan. At every point in the birthing sequences, somebody would be holding her. She never went back in the box, did she? She was like this very special child to all of us. We felt very privileged to have her with us. She did become a little person, didn’t she?
“As with all our births, it was incredibly moving,” added actress Emerald Fennell, who plays Patsy Mount and delivers the Baby Susan. “And I think of all of the days that we filmed a birth, it was the most sombre and respectful.”