It’s the week after Easter and, while the rest of the nation guiltily nurses its food hangover, Helen George is feeling more virtuous than ever, having prised herself away from the chocolate eggs on Easter Day to complete a 20-mile, three-hour run around west London.
Four days later, although her “legs are so tight” and she’s worried about the state of her knees and her back, the Call the Midwife actress is clearly still on a high. “It’s a long way,” she says, widening her already impossibly big blue eyes to emphasise the scale of her achievement. “And it can be really boring.”
So why subject herself to such a physically and psychologically gruelling regime when she could be enjoying some rare time off before reprising her role as Trixie in the fifth series of the hit BBC1 drama, which starts filming next month?
The answer can be traced back to a giddy night last summer when George, buoyed by a fair few glasses of champagne, declared that she wanted to run the London Marathon. “I sort of agreed to do it while I was a little bit drunk. Then I woke up in the morning and thought, ‘Oh God, did I really do that?’”
It’s worth noting that George has never been a couch potato. Her father was once a county champion long-distance runner, and while his daughter preferred ballet and baulked at the idea of endurance sport, she got hooked on jogging in her 20s after moving to London to pursue an acting career. “Ten kilometres is as far as I’d go. I’d usually just do a 25-minute run, three times a week, so I’ve had to build that up.”
The first step on her quest for marathon glory was to make sure that she couldn’t get out of it. Leveraging her celebrity status, George announced her intention to run for Macmillan Cancer Support at the start of her training and has kept her 12,200 Twitter followers updated on her progress. “There’s no way of backing out without looking like a complete idiot, I’ve publicised it too much, so I’ve got to knuckle down. The very nature of what actors do is flighty. We’re filming for three or six months, so to commit to something big is scary for someone who’s quite fleeting in their personality.”
She then set about devising a fitness plan that combined gradually longer runs with weight training and yoga. “It was hard because we were filming the fourth series of Midwife at the time and we’d do a 12-hour day and then I’d go home and do an hour and a half of training. Running 26 miles seems an achievable goal now, because my core is much stronger. And I’m a lot lighter.”
This is both a baffling and slightly alarming admission given that midwife Trixie has always been as recognisable for her strikingly petite frame as she has for her platinum bob and bold lipstick choices. You only have to look at George in her lycra two-piece to see that there isn’t an ounce of fat on her. It isn’t unreasonable to wonder whether her exercise kick has gone too far – a suggestion that she quickly rejects. Her decision to lose weight, she explains, was as much a professional consideration as it was a fitness one.
“I decided that because Trixie had quite a hard storyline in the last series [she struggled with alcoholism], I’d take it upon myself to lose her curves, because I always equated her fullness to her joie de vivre. I envisaged that people not noticing she had a drinking problem would affect her appetite, so I looked at how I could change my body. I researched how I was going to do it and I did it through a lot of exercise, very carefully.”
That may be so, but Call the Midwife’s younger fans (the show has been a surprise hit with teenage girls) may not be aware of this rationale – they’ll just see Trixie getting ever thinner. Does George worry about the message this sends out?
“I suppose there is a responsibility,” she muses, “but I hope they see that when we do those lovely scenes where we’re eating cakes and sandwiches, we do do that. We all love a feed on our show… The whole idea of selfies really worries me – we’re so body-aware now. I did ballet when I was younger and you’re always staring at your body and re-adjusting lines. It didn’t alter the way I thought of myself, but as I’ve got older I think, ‘Gosh, it could really play with your mind’, and a selfie reflects that as well. I think getting fit rather than skinny is such a good idea.”
It’s also the theme of Sport England’s This Girl Can initiative, a campaign launched last year to encourage girls to get involved in sport without worrying about being judged. A TV ad shows women of all ages, shapes and sizes charg§ing across football pitches and up muddy hills. Sweat pours, cellulite wobbles and everyone is gloriously unconcerned with how they look. “I think the campaign’s brilliant,” says George. “I work out at home a lot because in the gym you often feel men watching you as you’re in tight-fitting clothes. What I love about the advert is that it’s not just supermodels working out.”
So is she happy to lead by example and be snapped red-faced and exhausted? There’s a pause – and a contradiction of sorts. “Of course, because I’m a girl, I don’t want to look awful on camera. I remember Katherine Jenkins got loads of stick last year for doing the marathon in make-up. I thought she looked incredible considering she’d just run 26 miles. As long as I don’t look completely terrible or do a Paula Radcliffe and go to the loo on the side of the road…”
George hopes to complete the race in under four hours, 15 minutes. There isn’t much leeway, though, as she’s presenting an award at the Bafta Television Craft Awards that evening. “I’m such an idiot!” she says. “I have to finish by a certain time to get my hair and make-up done and get into my frock. Then I’ll have a lovely glass of champagne and feel very smug.”
And so she should. Not many people are up for working the room at a red-carpet event only hours after finishing the most physically demanding challenge of their life – but this girl can and this girl will.
Helen is running for Team Macmillan. To donate, go to uk.virginmoneygiving.com/HelenGeorge