63 behind-the-scenes facts you didn't know about Call the Midwife
From tales of Helen George’s dog Charlie, to the time the BBC drama shared a set with Star Wars, here are the biggest secrets of the show as the story reaches 1963
1. It takes 120 days over a six-month period to film a complete series of Call the Midwife. Over that time, the show’s caterers serve around 30,000 meals to cast and crew.
2. The show always starts filming in April, so by the time it comes to the Christmas special — which usually features snow — it’s boiling hot outside. Laura Main and Stephen McGann (who play Shelagh and Patrick Turner) regularly appear on set in big coats with bathing costumes worn underneath.
3. When temperatures soar, Helen George, who plays Trixie, hires an ice cream van to serve the cast and crew frozen treats.
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4. It takes several days to prepare the backdrop for winter scenes, with wooden frames, fabric, fake snow and plastic icicles hanging from lampposts.
5. Nonnatus House was named after St Raymond Nonnatus, who was born by caesarean section and is the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women. Non natus is Latin for “not born”.
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6. The nuns are based on sisters from the Anglican Community of St John the Divine. The order is still active, though the remaining sisters left the East End in 1976 and now work with the homeless in Birmingham. Before she died, Jennifer Worth, whose memoirs inspired the series, set up a trust for the order so they receive an income from the profits of the books and the show.
7 .Jennifer Worth’s books only provided one-and-a-half series worth of material. After series one, the team hired a researcher to interview people who’d written into the show with their own stories. Heidi Thomas (the series’ creator and writer) calls it oral testimony, and it has provided her with roughly half the stories for the drama.
8. Heidi was inspired to bring Call the Midwife to the screen after she suffered a serious illness 14 months after her son Dominic was born, to honour the care and kindness she received from the nurses.
9. For series one and two, St Joseph’s College in Mill Hill, north London — built by Father Herbert Vaughan in 1866 as Britain’s first Catholic missionary college — was used as the setting for Nonnatus House. In 2013, the building was sold to a developer, so the team decamped to the Manor House at Longcross Film Studios in Surrey, formerly the site of an MoD tank test track.
10. During filming in spring 2016, Call the Midwife shared the studio with the Millennium Falcon, with filming for Star Wars: The Last Jedi taking place on an outdoor lot.
11. Theed Street near Waterloo station in London is the location for exterior shots of terraced houses that open directly on to a street.
12. Manor House was an officers’ mess hall after the Second World War — and the first floor is reputed to be haunted.
13. Most street scenes are shot in the Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent. Staff have renamed one street Chummy’s Hill, after the scene when Camilla “Chummy” Browne (Miranda Hart) tried to ride a bicycle and crashed into PC Noakes.
14. It takes around seven hours to film every birth — real infants can only film for 15 minutes at a time so the team has worked with thousands of children.
15. All of the on-set food is real, with cakes brought in from an artisan bakery to give the right look to a Victoria sponge.
16 Mary Berry offered to bake the cakes for the show when the current producer, Ann Tricklebank, ran into her at the National Television Awards last year.
17. The nuns’ Royal Doulton Cascade tea set has a bigger post bag than some of the actors. Viewers either share memories or complain they’ve broken their sugar basin. Members of the team’s art department buy a lot on eBay, and if they find a spare sugar basin they pass it on.
18. Heidi Thomas is a stickler for period accuracy. In series two, while the show’s usual set dresser was off sick, there was a scene with a family eating Sunday lunch and the stand-in dresser put broccoli on the table. Because nobody ate broccoli in 1959 they used an editing tool and decolourised the broccoli so that it looked like cauliflower.
19. Directors who are new to the show receive a mood board, which always includes pictures taken by Nick Hedges in the late 1960s as part of a housing campaign run by Shelter, the homelessness charity.
20. The character of Reggie Jackson, who has Down’s syndrome, was inspired by Heidi Thomas’s late brother David, who also had the condition.
21. For the Thalidomide storyline, two silicone babies were made to play baby Susan, one of whom is animatronic. Both the silicone babies have now been donated to the Thalidomide Society.
22. Most on-screen births involve both a real and a prosthetic baby. The show has three prosthetic babies, which cost £5,000 each to make from the same medical-grade silicone used in artificial limbs. It feels like human skin to the touch.
23.There’s a drawer full of umbilical cords on set — different sizes of baby require different sizes of umbilical cord.
24. Minced beef was once used as a broken-up placenta. Afterwards, the show’s midwifery adviser, Terri Coates, insisted the room and the crew be sterilised before the baby came in for filming.
25. When waters break during a delivery, either Terri or the actress punctures a condom full of water to squirt out fake amniotic fluid.
26. With a couple of rare exceptions — hello, Anita Dobson! — the show isn’t keen on big-name cameos. That doesn’t stop celebrities’ agents writing in to ask for their clients to be in it, although this approach has yet to work.
27. Cliff Parisi, who plays Fred Buckle, qualified for his private pilot’s licence while working on the show.
28. Max Macmillan, who plays young Timothy Turner, is an expert pianist and often plays the on-set piano for the cast between scenes.
29. Jenny Agutter’s son is a real-life doctor, working full-time for the NHS.
30. Stephen McGann is left-handed and that makes some procedures difficult for him to replicate as medical tools are made for right-handed people, so he practises again and again using his “wrong” hand. For really complex procedures, Terri Coates’s paediatrician husband puts on a mask and plays Dr Turner to get the details right for the camera.
31. Stephen McGann is an expert at the art of origami — he folds all the paper animals that Dr Turner makes.
32. Despite the fact that Heidi Thomas and Stephen McGann are married and Heidi works from home, Stephen doesn’t read a word of the scripts until they arrive in the post.
33. The Call the Midwife soundtrack album, which featured the cast singing their version of Elevator Rock originally sung by Tommy Steele, was a hit in 2013, shifting more than 60,000 copies.
34. In November that year, on-screen husband and wife Stephen McGann and Laura Main followed up the album with a single, When I Fall in Love, released for Children in Need. Laura also won a Children in Need Call the Midwife Strictly special.
35. The children pictured on the front of the first DVD cover and in lots of publicity shots, running behind the midwives on their bikes, are executive producer Pippa Harris’s daughter Ella McBrien and her friends, Mae, Sam, Laurence and Henry Topley.
36. Hayley Squires, who made her screen debut as Conchita Warren’s daughter Maureen in the very first episode, went on to get a Bafta nomination and win a British Independent Film Award for her role as Katie in I, Daniel Blake.
37. Now aged four, Alice Brown has played Angela Turner since she was a few months old. Producers once hired a body double so that she could attend a friend’s birthday party.
38. The location for the Hope Clinic in South Africa was actually a children’s school — the Call the Midwife team gave the kids enough meal vouchers to get them through the winter, as well as warm coats and shoes.
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39. While filming in South Africa, cast members were surprised to find people living without electricity in the townships knew who they were. Township shabeens (illicit bars) often show the drama on communal televisions.
40. Call the Midwife has been sold to over 100 countries. The 2017 Christmas Special also aired on Christmas night across the USA, and on Boxing Day in Australia.
41. The show has a global cast. Actors from China, Pakistan, Somalia, Japan, India, Bangladesh, Russia, Ireland, Sweden, Nigeria, Norway, St Lucia, Jamaica and South Africa have all appeared.
42. Victoria Yeates who plays Sister Winifred, became engaged to musician Paul Housden while filming the 2016 Christmas special in South Africa.
43. In the UK, the show is often described as comforting and nostalgic, but in the US it’s seen as a radical argument for free medical care. An LA Times reviewer described the show as “a timely valentine to socialised medicine”.
44. When series one director Philippa Lowthorpe won the Bafta best director award for her work on the show in 2013, she was the first woman to be awarded the fiction directing prize by the Academy. In total, 11 women have directed episodes of CTM.
45. Heidi Thomas, Pippa Harris and Ann Tricklebank first worked together some 25 years ago on ITV’s Soldier Soldier.
46. The Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Cornwall are both said to be fans, and a DVD of the festive episode is sent to Sandringham at Christmas.
47. When Trixie became engaged to Tom Hereward the vicar, the show’s costume department struggled to find the right 1920s ring, so Heidi lent Helen George a ring from her own jewellery box. Awkwardly, in the story, Trixie hated the ring.
48. Most of the show’s guest female characters — who appear in one or two episodes — arrive on set with highlights of some kind in their hair. The team take them to a salon for a colour wash, then pay to have the highlights put back in again after shooting. This accounts for the largest part of the hair and make-up budget.
49. It takes two hours to do each of the midwives’ hair with backcombing and lacquer. It’s all their own hair, with a couple of judicious extensions here and there.
50. In the 1960s the midwives would have worn masks when they were with the newborn babies but the production team decided to overlook this, as it was felt viewers would struggle to tell who was who in a lot of scenes.
51. Historic events are rarely referenced, with one big exception — the Space Race, starting with Yuri Gagarin in series five. In series seven, the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, gets a namecheck in episode four. She went into orbit in the summer of 1963.
52. The producers are fanatical about secrecy and spoilers. They often put out false call sheets so the public won’t know where they’re filming, as hundreds of fans turn up to watch outdoor location scenes.
53. Production on the show centres around a full script read through the day before shooting, which is always themed. When sex education classes were part of the story, the room was decorated with birds and bees; for Lucy Chen’s Chinese community storyline there were Chinese snacks and everyone got a fan.
54. Helen George’s dog Charlie comes to every read through and loves the sound of applause. When the read through wraps and everyone claps he leaps into the centre of the room.
55. Judy Parfitt, who plays Sister Monica Joan, has a white poodle called Freddie who appeared in episode five of series six. Unfortunately, Freddie hates Stephen McGann….
56. The best-legs-on-set competition was won by Judy Parfitt, who hitched up her habit and trounced the youngsters.
57. Celebrity fans include Lena Dunham, Whoopi Goldberg and Paul McCartney, whose mother was a midwife.
58. Heidi Thomas used to assist the Akela of her local Cub pack — hence the many storylines involving Cub Scouts.
59.For the first series, the team asked midwives at a maternity unit if they knew any women who would be happy to bring babies to the set. By series two, regulations had tightened so all babies are now recruited through licensed agencies.
60. The show’s first breech birth, with Chummy helping the delivery, took a whole day to film, and is now used for teaching purposes by trainee obstetricians.
61. All costumes are made in triplicate to cater for blood, dirt or rips that might occur in scenes that are filmed out of chronological order.
62. Costume designer Amy Roberts met the nuns of the Order of St John the Divine to check period details before designing outfits. The original habit for the series was bright blue but had to be toned down for the cameras.
63. Over the first six series — a total of 51 episodes — of Call the Midwife, Terri Coates estimates that there have been 91 on-screen births filmed (including two still births), which means that the 100th birth should fall in series seven!
This article was originally published in February 2018