What happened when Call the Midwife went to South Africa

When they weren't delivering babies on camera, the actors went on safari, paragliding and cage-diving with sharks

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For the first time ever, Call the Midwife will go on tour this Christmas. The nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House decamp to South Africa after receiving an SOS from a mission hospital in the Eastern Cape. Between the heart-rending plot and cockle-warming performances, viewers will be treated to some stunning scenery.

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“It’s all real,” promises Charlotte Ritchie, who plays Nurse Barbara. “There’s a scene where Trixie is playing her records and I’m speaking Xhosa. The backdrop is completely real and it’s the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen. Every time I turned round, I was like, ‘Wow.’”

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Helen George as the ever stylish Trixie 

The special was filmed last April in the Western Cape. Unlike the midwives, who find themselves miles from the nearest telephone, the cast stayed in the thick of the action in laidback, proudly multicultural Cape Town. “We were near a big party street called Long Street, so we could nip out for a drink and a dance and then come home. It was really fun.”

In recent years, South Africa has become popular with TV producers and film-makers. In the past few months alone, it’s doubled as Egypt’s Valley of the Kings in ITV’s Tutankhamun, Kenya in the BBC series Our Girl, and Amazonian jungle and the Caribbean in Sky’s Hooten & the Lady.

A very favourable exchange rate and thriving film industry are part of the attraction, but the real draw for producers is the remarkable diversity of the terrain. There aren’t many countries of South Africa’s size that boast such variety of landscape: desert, savannah, tropical jungle, rolling hills, craggy mountains and pristine beaches.

When they weren’t delivering babies on camera, the cast wasted no time in exploring the Cape Peninsula’s myriad offerings. Helen George (Trixie) explored a giant cactus forest, Victoria Yeates (Sister Winifred) went on safari and petted a cheetah in a reserve for rescued big cats, Stephen McGann and Laura Main (the Turners) climbed Table Mountain and Jack Ashton (Nurse Barbara’s sweetheart Reverend Tom) went on a vineyard tour and paraglided off Lion’s Head, one of three mountains that encircle Cape Town.

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It wasn’t just the younger members of the cast who sought out thrills. Cliff Parisi, 56, also opted for a bird’s-eye view: he flew through the gap between Lion’s Head and Table Mountain in a four-seater light aircraft.

As for Charlotte Ritchie, she chose to go cage-diving with sharks. Plucky divers swim in a large cage attached to a boat while fish guts are thrown overboard to attract great whites. Ritchie loved it.

“I was quite hungover so what was most scary was the fact that I thought I was going to be sick because the boat was really rocky! It’s against all your reflexes to swim next to a shark so you get this really unusual view of something you shouldn’t be seeing. It was incredible to get so close to something so majestic.”

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But best of all – and rather more relaxing – was the afternoon she spent meandering around Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden (pictured above), an 88-acre garden dedicated to the rich flora of southern Africa. “It’s on the lush, tropical side of Table Mountain and it’s gorgeous, really tranquil. I think it’s the best place I’ve ever been actually.” 

Call the Midwife is on Christmas Day at 8pm BBC1


Radio Times Travel holidays:

Cape Town, Garden Route & Safari Tour, 11 nights from £1,695pp

A fantastic opportunity to explore the Garden Route on one of the world’s most spectacular drives through forested mountains, stunning coastline, expansive bays and sheltered lagoons. Arrive in beautiful Cape Town and spend four nights at the 4 star Victoria & Alfred Hotel Waterfront with fabulous views of Table Mountain. Click here for the full itinerary and to book

South Africa Tour, 16 days from £1899pp

This wonderful 16-day tour is designed to highlight South Africa’s amazing diversity of cultures as well as its phenomenal scenery and wildlife. What’s included: guided full-day safari in the Kruger National Park, one of the world’s premier game reserves; tour of the legendary Zulu War battlefields of Isandlwana and Rorke’s Drift, immortalised in the classic film Zulu!; go whale watching for Southern Right Whales; stay in the heart of the fabulously beautiful Western Cape’s Winelands. Click here for the full itinerary and to book

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View all South Africa holidays

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