You may not actually be able to notice the difference, but – thanks to COVID – Call the Midwife has had to make some major changes to how they film those famous birth scenes.
The BBC drama generally features at least one woman giving birth per episode, which means hundreds of newborn babies have starred in the show over the last decade. Babies are often recruited by an agency ahead of their birth, and are brought onto set by their parents; the real-life babies are then used in combination with prosthetics, with midwifery advisor Terri Coates on hand to supervise.
But with filming for the 2020 Christmas special and series 10 taking place during the coronavirus pandemic, many things on set have had to change. And that was particularly true when it came to the show’s tiniest actors.
“It’s completely different,” Ella Bruccoleri – who plays sister Frances – tells journalists on a video call from the set of Call the Midwife. “So before, we actually got to touch the little babies, which was really nice, I really enjoyed that. And now we don’t get to have any contact with the babies at all, in any scenes… we have to be off set for them to come on, so it’s like a super closed set.”
And not only that, but the babies’ actual mothers are now serving as body doubles.
“It’s the mums that have to dress as us and stand in for those shots,” reveals Bruccoleri. “So the mums are wearing the full habits and stuff.
“So they’ve just given birth and now they’re basically on camera… but I guess maybe in a way they feel better about that. Because it must be so weird, I think, handing over your new-born baby to essentially a stranger, to enact this weird reproduction of what you’ve just done with it, that’s super-weird, isn’t it? It’s sort of crazy for them at the minute, with the pandemic, to be coming into this environment with their tiny fragile baby.”
Fenella Woolgar, who plays Sister Hilda, adds: “Obviously we use a mixture of prosthetics and real babies, and because of COVID, we are very much leaning toward the prosthetic version, which I feel really sad about because it’s one of the things I love about the show, I get to cuddle a lovely newborn.”
Laura Main, who plays Nurse Shelagh Turner, gets involved in a childbirth scene in the 2020 Christmas special after the return of series six guest star Katie Lyons as pregnant mother Gloria Venables. And that did involve working with an actual newborn – but it wasn’t easy.
“Katie was tested for COVID; any person playing a mum who is going to hold a baby has to be tested,” Main explains. And because Lyons couldn’t wear a mask while the cameras were rolling, there was the question of where she should turn her head and direct her breath: “But the alternative is not to be here, and not to be doing this, and you know – it’s amazing how quickly you start to adapt and hopefully learn these new little tricks of the trade at this current time.”
One other change you might spot is that the actors now wear surgical masks during medical scenes. But that actually makes the show more true-to-life, not less.
Main says: “For the first time, we have seen in a surgery situation a mask being worn – and I suppose for dramatic purposes you don’t want to cover half your face, so previously we won’t have used masks perhaps when we should have. But now the decision has been made to wear masks in a birth situation, because you do get a little bit closer than normal.”
Nurse Phyllis Crane actress Linda Bassett adds: “It was tricky to do a birth, but we’ve introduced surgical masks into the story, so that meant we could get closer as we obviously needed to do. We still have to stay at a distance, but [they’re] finding all sorts of ways to shoot us, so we’re a metre apart but we don’t look it.
“The birth was tricky, but they’re always tricky because they’re the most important thing we do, so we always take an awful lot of care over them. But they’ll be doing the real baby scenes separately from the ones we did with a synthetic baby.”
And as Dr Patrick Turner actor Stephen McGann points out: “10 years ago – because it’s been 10 years now – when we were just learning how to do this, when no one gave us an instruction book, we had to learn those processes ourselves and solve those problems.
“How do you film a woman giving birth? It’s very intimate. How do you do that? Keep the camera hidden? Show a baby’s head coming out? And so, we solve those, and in a funny way, having these restrictions is just more problems that you solve along the way, and we get there, and the longer we go on the more smooth we’ll be with the process.”
Call the Midwife airs on Christmas Day at 7:40pm on BBC One, and will return for season 10 in 2021. Looking for more to watch? Check out our guide to the best Christmas TV 2020 or find out what to watch tonight with our TV Guide.