It’s difficult to imagine how Call the Midwife could become any more touching, but this week writer Heidi Thomas pulls it off yet again with a spectacular scene revealing nuns, nurses, doctors and locals all going weak at the knees at the entrance of the beautiful bride, Nurse Barbara, in her fur-trimmed cloak.
Pulling together life’s great dramatic events, which we all recognise from our own experience, has been one of the key ingredients to the drama’s phenomenal success, attracting more than ten million viewers.
However, this is Call the Midwife, not Bless the Bride, and although the wedding makes a fitting climax, it is, as always, all about the babies. Indeed, there is even the arrival of a baby to a midwife herself this week. And yes, the show may well have expanded into key areas of social history such as female contraception and East End immigration, but the special moment is when the newborn turns up. All the babies are adorable, and truly newborns. There’s no CGI montage going on here. These are real, beady-eyed babies, just hatched, exuding their mysterious wisdom and waving their arms around in that gorgeous manner that only actual newborns do. It must be wonderful having them on set.
“Well, they are real divas,” says Charlotte Ritchie, who plays Nurse Barbara Gilbert, whose wedding takes place in this week’s episode.
What? Surely not? Yes, says the unrepentant Ritchie. “They cry all the time. They have 15-minute breaks every 15 minutes and everyone has to be hushed when they turn up! They get everything they want.”
Charlotte Ritchie as Barbara heading to her wedding
She can’t seriously be piqued by being upstaged by a newborn? Well, no. Ritchie admits they are rather sweet and working with them has some advantages. “The other day I was on a train and someone handed me their baby while she went off to the loo. I didn’t feel nervous, I felt at ease. It was nice. I feel much more of an impulse to help mums and dads on their own.”
How was filming the wedding? “That was very nerve-racking, wearing a real wedding dress and going through the whole ceremony. Having to keep my dress white and make sure I didn’t spill tea down my front was a major concern.”
But back to the babies. Surely it’s difficult to find parents who are willing to give up their newborns to appear in Call the Midwife? Not at all, says series producer Ann Tricklebank. “Lots of eager parents contact us and say, ‘We are having a baby, would you like it on the show?’ But the reality is that we need our newborns at very specific times due to the filming schedule, and so we get most of our babies through a specialist talent agency. We use babies up to about eight weeks old, and sometimes we have special demands, for example with regard to ethnicity. Or perhaps if we’re covering a premature birth, we will need a tiny baby.
“We can’t use babies of people who write in because the baby has to tie into the shooting schedule, not the other way round. Although of course, once the baby is on set, we have to comply with regulations about working time, and we are very happy to do that.”
Shooting the birth is a complicated affair, according to Tricklebank. “One baby being born on screen will take at least five hours to shoot, and very often the actor playing the mother will never have had a baby herself. So first of all we have to rehearse what that experience is like. Our midwifery adviser Terri Coates puts the actor through the birthing process following the structure of that week’s story, whether the birth is at home or in hospital or in the back of a car.”
Of course, the real newborns don’t have to show up for rehearsals. “We rehearse the birth with what we call a ‘jelly baby’, which is essentially a silicone model that feels and looks just like a real baby. But when the time comes to shoot, we use a real baby. We pass it under the actor’s thigh and she brings it up, holding the baby and its umbilical cord, which is made of silicone, and then she holds it against its tummy.”
Jelly Baby: a spookily authentic silicone newborn
It can’t be easy coping with a wriggling, slippery baby and having to remember to hold the cord in the right place. What happens if there is a gap caught on camera between cord and baby? “We correct it with CGI.” And what about the authentic slipperiness? “Grape juice and stage blood, basically.” What do the babies’ mothers think of this? “They are fine. They can either sit on set with us or watch the filming on a nearby monitor. It’s a big day for them, too.”
It’s all incredibly well thought out. However, as every actor knows, children aren’t easy to film with, so newborns must be no exception.
Has Tricklebank ever had to film a birth with a furious newborn not happy about being launched so early into its acting career?
“No, we know how to handle babies. The room is as warm and quiet as possible. Our crew is well used to babies. They know when the baby arrives on set, they must all be quiet and still.”
Ah yes, the diva quotient. What happens when problem births are covered? “If it’s a difficult birth, we might look to use newborn twins, who can give us twice as much time filming on camera.” And disability? “When we were doing our thalidomide story, we used the head of a real toddler and the arms and legs were done by animatronics. I think all parents who have had able-bodied babies are happy to help, and in this case support parents and babies who went through thalidomide 50 years ago. I think that’s why Call the Midwife is so loved. Because what happens in it could happen to anyone.”
Over the years the show has gone through a lot of babies. “We use about 60 to 70 a series,” says Tricklebank. “And upwards of 200 small children. That’s a lot, but we don’t think we’ll run out. The parents love it because they have a little scene with their baby that they can keep for ever. It’s special.”
It’s pretty memorable for the actor portraying the birth, too. Laura Main, who plays Shelagh Turner, has her baby in this week’s episode. She has not had any children herself, so how did she prepare for the role?
“I talked to Terri [Coates, the midwifery adviser] about the different stages of labour, and I watched people giving birth on YouTube. They haven’t been edited too much, and it’s pretty difficult to watch! But the women have no inhibitions and they are very inspiring.”
When it came to filming day, Main admits she was pretty nervous. “I was worried I would be embarrassed doing a birth scene. But the crew was very supportive and of course Jenny [Agutter, who plays Sister Julienne] and Stephen [McGann, who plays Shelagh’s husband Dr Turner] were amazing. And women who are giving birth go into a zone, don’t they? You block it all out and just go for it. It was a very memorable day. After all, I started on the show as Sister Bernadette, a nun who thought she was infertile. And here I am as midwife Shelagh giving birth.
“It was just lovely. And nice for me as an actress to play another massive aspect of life. It makes me want to have a baby of my own.”
This article was originally published in the 11-17 March 2017 issue of Radio Times