Speaking to RadioTimes.com, actor Charlotte Ritchie, who has played the midwife for the past four years, explains how her final appearance in Call the Midwife series seven came about.
“It seemed like a good time to go,” she says. “They ask you to commit quite early on in the year to the show. And I always wanted to do it, but I also felt that I’d done three different series for the last five years, and thought it might be good to slightly try and branch out and try something new.
“I just didn’t want to get too comfy. I just think it keeps it fresh and keeps it alive if I keep going.”
Charlotte Ritchie as Nurse Barbara Gilbert in the Call the Midwife 2017 Christmas special
Ritchie says that – even if it breaks out hearts – she felt it was a good moment to end her character’s story, too.
“I felt like Barbara had gone through such a lovely journey, having arrived at Nonnatus House a sort of wreck and quite incompetent, or at least on the surface,” she tells us.
“And she’s really grown up and become this adult. And it felt like such a lovely time, with her wedding to Tom, having found that happiness and reconciled with Trixie. It could be a good time to go.”
Ritchie has been keeping the secret of Barbara’s shock death under wraps since June, before the Christmas special was even filmed.
In that festive episode, Barbara and her husband Rev Tom Hereward (Jack Ashton) disappeared off to a parish in Birmingham, and didn’t return to Poplar until episode five.
Read more about the future of Call the Midwife, including an interview with Rev Tom Hereward actor Jack Ashton, in the new issue of Radio Times
Out this Tuesday
Couldn’t Call the Midwife creator and screenwriter Heidi Thomas have just left them there, living their lives off screen? Other Call the Midwife characters have left the series without tragedy – did Barbara really have to be killed off?
“It would have been amazing to have the door always open, but also you can’t always do that,” Ritchie explains. “You can’t have your cake and eat it. It was my decision to go and I think it feels right that I really, properly shut the door.”
She adds: “For Heidi, she nurtures every single character that she writes, and she pours her heart into them. I think there’s maybe something about needing to have closure, sometimes, on characters. I think she wanted to give Barbara a solid goodbye and not leave the door open – not necessarily leave us wondering what happened.”
In episode six of Call the Midwife series seven, we see Barbara suffering what she thinks is just a persistent cold. But her health takes a turn for the worse, and Nurse Phyllis Crane (Linda Bassett) summons Dr Turner (Stephen McGann), who tells her to call an ambulance immediately.
Episode seven sees Barbara in hospital, and it quickly becomes clear she is dangerously ill. Her temperature is high, she is drenched in sweat and covered with red blotches where blood is seeping under her skin. She is barely conscious.
For some time there is no change, but finally her husband and her friends at Nonnatus House receive some good news: she is awake, and recovering.
That’s why it’s so devastating when Barbara takes a turn for the worse. First her fingers blacken and become numb as the tissue dies, ending her career as a midwife, and then it becomes clear she is going to die. However, even in her final hours she is stoic, facing her fate with courage and bravery.
It is a touching end to Barbara’s time on the show, but before Heidi Thomas made her decision Ritchie and her friends came up with a few dud ideas about how she might leave.
“Some of them were quite fun,” she says. “Like being crushed by an iron lung. Or falling through a trap door. Or just falling down an elevator shaft…”
Thankfully Thomas took none of those ideas into account. Instead, she chose to end Barbara’s story in a hospital bed, with husband Tom holding her hand and murmuring a psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” When his voice breaks, Nurse Phyllis Crane (Linda Bassett) continues the prayer.
“I just found them so moving,” says Ritchie. “There was something really surreal about two very, very, very good friends of mine, just crying and being amazing – they really make the scene.”
The moment Phyllis continues Tom’s psalm in Barbara’s final moments is particularly moving given that the character is so staunchly non-religious.
Ritchie reflects: “She’s never had any truck with religion before, and I think that’s a huge gesture.
“But also there’s something meditative about being able to say something when somebody goes. It’s not necessarily that you have to believe in the God, but there’s a ritual element to it that’s almost like a closure that I think it really brings, even if you’re not religious. I think that’s partly what it is for her too.”
Those hospital scenes were filmed over a week. A pallid Ritchie lay in bed covered in red patches meticulously painted on by the make-up department.
“There were scenes I had to do where I just lay in bed thinking about the fact that I was going to die. That was what the instruction was,” she explains.
“Barbara sits there thinking about the fact that she’s not going to be a midwife – that’s the first thing. She loses the tips of her fingers which means she can’t do the job she’s always wanted to do.
“It was really really weird. I had a bit of an existential crisis if I’m honest.”
Ritchie continues: “I think people don’t think or talk about death very much. I don’t think we’re very open about it, at least in my experience. And so it was strange, every day, to face this and consider what it would be like to know that you’re going to die in a few weeks.
“I know and I understand that there are people all over the world who have to face that, and I don’t want that to sound like I’m trivialising that at all. But I suppose it just made it ever so slightly more strange to act it out.”
Ritchie leaves Poplar with warm memories of Barbara and her four years at Nonnatus House.
“Weirdly you’re sort of saying goodbye to four years of your own life as well as the character that you’ve spent so long enjoying,” she says. “I like her [Barbara] a lot. I feel like I’d love to be like that; I’d love to be as kind and good as that. She’s a wonderful character and she’s really beautifully written.”
Looking back, she remembers the first time Barbara delivered a baby, alongside Nurse Patsy Mount (Emerald Fennell). She remembers going to South Africa for the 2016 Christmas special. She remembers one of her “favourite scenes ever, when I first see Nurse Crane sharing my room and she’s split the bedside cabinet down the middle with electrical tape, so that we have one side apiece.”
And she remembers all those scenes in the midwives’ bedrooms and the conversations they’d have while hanging out in their pyjamas.
“The crew and the cast – I mean I can’t tell you how fun it is, they’re just the best. It’s so good,” she says, and then pauses. “What have I done!?”
But it’s too late: the decision is made, and Barbara has gone.