Poplar, Call the Midwife’s pocket of period East End, is currently being rocked by an unknown threat. Babies are being born with shocking defects, shortened or entirely missing limbs – and medical professionals have no clue as to what’s causing them.
To a modern viewer the threat is, unfortunately, known. The hit BBC1 period drama is focusing on the unfolding Thalidomide scandal of the early 1960s.
Doctor Turner, who we saw prescribe the drug to an expectant mother at the end of series four, is set to be changed by the inevitable discovery, actor Stephen McGann tells us.
“He can’t not be,” McGann says, adding his character will feel “so very sad” when the truth is eventually uncovered.
“He always wanted to push the progress Britain was making for women, and that essentially is going to blow up horribly in his face. It is tough,” he continues. “The shock, the appalling sense of responsibility for those people in our care… I think doctors took a sort of collective guilt as a profession.”
Taking on the serious storyline is “a privilege,” McGann says, but he admits it was a challenging one: “It’s challenging for all of us. We all felt that the responsibility was incredible. On set it’s been really moving.”
“We hope we’ve done it justice.”
Midwife is a unique drama in that it manages to deftly balance lightness with dark. It’s entertaining to watch but it can also educate its viewers, which is something McGann’s always been interested in: “Television is so important as a form of communication… it has this amazing power. It can get people’s minds going.”
The show’s curious viewers are one of the reasons McGann has recently delved further into the mind of Doctor Turner. He’s written a book based on the character’s experiences in the hit period drama.
Doctor Turner’s Casebook is a social and historical guide to this changing period of time – from war neurosis and abortion to typhoid and, topically, Thalidomide – as well as a fictionalised diary of Poplar’s trusty doctor.
“It was very moving actually. I had this great journey,” he says. The late 1950s and 1960s were “an amazing time” for science and medicine. “It was a time of real change, an interesting time.”
Doctor Turner’s Casebook is available now
Call the Midwife series 5 concludes tonight at 8:00pm on BBC1