In its unpredictably successful run, Call the Midwife has never shied away from intense storylines – the Sunday-evening ratings giant has covered poverty, homosexuality, abortion and countless moral crises. Series five, however, is set to be the hardest-hitting yet, covering the dark history of the disabling former wonder-drug thalidomide and its devastating effects on the limbs, and lives, of thousands of children.
It’s been a story that’s a long time coming, explains the show’s creator Heidi Thomas, and it has a very personal connection. “We do public events where we show some clips and there’s a Q&A – often people don’t ask any questions, they just stand up and say, ‘I love Call the Midwife’ and start to cry – but people always say, ‘Are you going to cover thalidomide?’” she explains. “I was born in a small nursing home and my mum can remember a badly disabled thalidomide boy, born the same week as me, who was my roommate for the first week of my life, in a cot alongside me. I don’t know what became of him. I feel as the cradlemate to that little boy, it was always a story I wanted to tell – but we had to wait until series five, because it’s a story you can most truthfully cover in 1961.”
Created in West Germany, where it was launched in 1957, thalidomide was prescribed for pregnant women to help with morning sickness. In the UK, the drug was licensed in 1958 and thousands of pregnant women took it. Tragically, thalidomide caused serious birth defects, especially if taken in the first four to eight weeks of pregnancy – leading to the arms or legs of the babies being very short or imperfectly formed, as well as damaging their eyes, ears and heart.
In the UK, 2,096 babies were born impaired, with more than 26,400 affected worldwide, according to recent research for a forthcoming book. It wasn’t until May 1961 that Dr William McBride, an Australian GP, alerted the world to the drug’s dangers. It was removed from sale that December – which is where the story should have ended. As Thomas researched further, however, she found it was far from over.
“This is the first time that we’ve told a story that is essentially ongoing,” she explains. “There is a campaign called Fifty Year Fight – thalidomiders campaigning for them- selves and those like themselves to receive adequate compensation, not as some sort of great pecuniary gesture, but because they need additional funds to get them through their middle and old age.”
It was this campaign, combined with the audience reaction to the first hint of the thalidomide storyline at the end of season four – when Dr Turner prescribed it for a pregnant mother – that convinced Thomas to make the storyline a key part of the new season. It draws in Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) as well as the stricken Dr Turner (Thomas’s husband, Stephen McGann), who is consumed with guilt at prescribing the damaging drug.
“What was interesting about that first mention of thalidomide is that people of my generation just felt sick, and my mum said her heart turned over when she heard that,” Thomas explains. “But the younger generation – including the actors we work with – had no idea what thalido- mide was. That in itself led me to suppose it was a matter we needed to address quite seriously. Then working with the Thalidomide Trust and getting to know people who have thalidomide, I felt that if we shine a light on the situation it might materially affect their circumstances today. There can be no more powerful way to support their campaign than by representing the moments, the few days, months, weeks around their births when their mothers were handed these babies that were not perfect and not given any explanation as to why that was the case.”
Certainly the story – which starts with a limbless baby born in the maternity home in episode one and slowly plays out across the series as the midwives gradually put the pieces together – will reach a huge audience. Call the Midwife’s ratings success continues – last season getting an average 10.23 million viewers, beating Downton Abbey at 8.59 million – and Midwife’s audience spans three generations.
Thomas, 53, has always written Midwife from the heart – drawing on her own life to create the show’s powerful storylines. It’s possibly this that helps to make the show such a success. Matt Charman, who created Our Zoo for the BBC, did so in homage to Midwife after watching three generations gather round the TV to watch it one Christmas. Despite following what he saw as the Midwife template, Our Zoo survived for only one series. So far, Thomas has created a formula that no one has been able to imitate.
At first sight, she’s an unlikely TV revolutionary – always dressed smartly, sporting neat dark hair. She sits, ramrod straight, at the end of a huge sofa explaining why disability has always been a key concern for the show.
“I had a brother, David, who was born with Down’s syndrome in 1970, and it was put to my mother that she might prefer to put him into a home,” she says. “She chose to keep him with us, but a lot of people questioned it. When the vicar suggested that David didn’t attend the local playgroup as other mothers didn’t want him around their children, it marked me for ever.”
She created a touching romance between a Down’s syndrome woman and a man with cerebral palsy for series three of Midwife, and admits to a sniffle when she watched it broadcast in 2014. For the thalidomide story, she was profoundly affected by her research and by meeting those affected by the drug: “I sobbed throughout the research and writing,” she says, with a small smile. “But as Robert Frost said – no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader…” Typically, once the writing is finished, Thomas becomes the consummate on-set professional. For this storyline, however, the heartbreaking prosthetic newborn created for the show kept her emotional throughout filming. “All our prosthetic babies turn up in boxes and we tend to drag them around during filming, but this baby was never dragged,” she says quietly. “She was called baby Susan – we don’t usually name the babies – and when she came out of the box, she was just lying there on a blanket with a beautiful little bit of blonde hair and these little limb buds coming out of the shoulders and the feet… the whole room was silent. They handed her to me and I just looked down at this little thing in the crook of my arm – and it did choke me, it really did.”
In a touching postscript, one of her great sources for the show – Mikey Argy, a thalidomide campaigner who was awarded an MBE last year for services to disability – brought one of her daughters on set towards the end of filming. “We were in the make-up caravan and I gave her baby Susan – Mikey was holding this baby with no arms up to her daughter, just beaming and saying, ‘Look, that’s me when I was little…’”
Thomas pauses, gathers herself and takes a sip of water. “I just thought no other show would have this moment, not just on screen, but behind the scenes.”
Midwife fans will be well aware that Thomas delights in intricate plotting, and thalidomide is not the only campaigning story in series five. She covers the rise of free education, based around the story of her own family finally getting a chance at a university education.
“I was the first in my family to go to university, but I recently thought my son could be the last,” she says – her 18-year-old son Dominic, with Call the Midwife star McGann, recently told her that a school friend of his couldn’t afford to go to university. “That’s something I never wanted to hear in my lifetime,” she shudders. “I don’t want university to become something that certain groups of people feel is not for them. That’s not progress. What I love about Call the Midwife is being able to write about a time of huge progress and optimism with young people spreading their wings because their horizons are suddenly limitless. That doesn’t seem to be the case any more, does it?”
She’s fervent in her belief that telling good stories can help produce social change. “In the Reithian manner I suppose we do inform, educate and entertain,” she argues. Does she think the changes ahead in the 1960s will prove her undoing? How will Midwife’s tender pre-feminist narrative survive the age of the pill and sexual liberation?
She scoffs. “People have been saying, ‘Oh, it’ll all end when the pill comes in’, as though no more babies were ever born again and the entire world was sterilised,” she laughs. “Call the Midwife could run for another 50 years and we could be covering the issues of today. Sadly, that would mean we’d still be covering thalidomide and looking at the lives of people coping with arthritis in the jaw from having to lift the kettle with their mouths for 50 years. I always say a well-told period drama will shine a light on the way we live today by looking back at how far we’ve come – or sometimes what a small distance we’ve travelled despite everything we know…”