“When you’re there and you’re filming the scenes, it’s always more shocking than you’d think,” says Jennifer Kirby.
She’s talking about the first episode of Call the Midwife series eight, where her character Nurse Valerie Dyer decides to help a desperate woman miscarrying after a backstreet abortion. “I don’t care how this has come about, I’m going to help you, do you hear me?” she says.
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Aspiring fashion model Cath (Emily Barber) arrives at Nonnatus House gravely ill and bleeding, and passes the foetus in the bathroom with Val’s assistance, while wide-eyed newcomer Sister Frances (Ella Bruccoleri) quietly does what she can to help.
The midwives must be mindful that Sergeant Woolf (Trevor Cooper) is downstairs, drinking tea – and that Cath could be in serious legal trouble. They lock the bathroom door.
“That was very emotional to film and it made everybody feel very impassioned,” Kirby tells RadioTimes.com. She may have known in theory that this was the reality of abortion in 1964, but “it brings a certain other level of reality to it, I suppose, when you’re actually filming it and creating it.”
The story of Cath isn’t over yet, because Val is desperate to make sure other women aren’t hurt by the same illegal abortion provider. And although she’s keen to avoid spoilers, Kirby says there will be “further cases down the line.”
“It’s a definite theme throughout the series, if you can say abortion is a theme,” the actress says. “Valerie obviously takes it to heart, because she’s so connected to that community. It’s where she’s from… so the idea that there’s something within the community, that women are having to go to this level – I think she feels it very personally.”
Of course, it’s a topic Call the Midwife has tackled before: an episode in 2013 showed a graphic botched backstreet abortion, and last year the Turners’ au pair Magda (Nina Yndis) took drugs to end her unwanted pregnancy. But in series eight, the storyline will go well beyond a single episode.
Kirby, who is “pro-choice”, says she is prepared for controversy and negative headlines on such a sensitive subject.
“No matter what, if you’re creating drama that has a lot of heart behind it and a lot of feeling and a lot of passion, there’s always going to be people who feel certain ways about it and feel passionate about it in either sense, both positively and negatively,” she tells us.
But, she says, if the storyline begins a conversation then it is worth it.
“I think us talking to each other about things, and especially things like that, that are very difficult and very sensitive – I think the more we can talk about it to each other and talk about it with honesty and openness and understanding and without anybody jumping to conclusions and judgements and things, that can only be a positive thing,” Kirby suggests.
Abortion was illegal in the UK until the Abortion Act of 1967, when the procedure was legalised – but only on certain grounds, and not in Northern Ireland where previous prohibitions still apply. The issue remains a source of huge contention.
“I think [Call the Midwife creator] Heidi Thomas has a really amazing knack of pinpointing – maybe without realising when she’s starting to write it – how relevant an issue is going to be, to what we’re facing now, and sort of mirroring it back,” Kirby says.
“Sometimes in terms of addressing things, in terms of how things were then, we kind of discover things about ourselves now.”