Call The Midwife actress Jennifer Kirby has described the filming of the show’s FGM birth as “intense”.
“It was something that we’d worked on for a while because it’s not your run of the mill birth,” said the actress of the series six scene, which sees nurse Valerie Dyer having to physically intervene to ensure the safe delivery of a child whose mother, Nadifa, has been subject to female genital mutilation at home in Somaliland.
“It’s something that we worked on a lot beforehand,” the actress explains, “because it was quite tricky, scientifically I suppose.”
Kirby, whose character delivers the baby by herself in the back of an ambulance, says accuracy was key and a top priority for all those involved.
“We did a lot of work, we practised it a lot of times. They’re very good because they set so much time aside for something like that that will be a bit tricky.”
The whole sequence took the best part of a day to film in a very small space but the support on set made things much easier for the new midwife.
“Everybody knows it’s quite a tricky thing to do so they’re very good and helpful and supportive,” explains Kirby. “I didn’t ever feel worried, I felt excited really, it was exciting to do and I was excited to have the opportunity to get something like that right. I wanted to get it correct and be in this very dramatic situation.”
Despite the demanding nature of the scene, Kirby insists it was one of the highlights of her Call The Midwife debut.
“It was quite an intense time because it was very emotional and there’s a lot to deal with but it was also invigorating and exciting. It was great,” she says.
Valerie becomes heavily involved in the FGM storyline, expressing her negative feelings about the mother’s experience and the idea of another young girl being sent home to be “cut”.
Was it difficult, then, to approach the scene with the mindset of a 21st century woman from the UK?
“For that particular thing, I think no, because FGM isn’t really that much known about even now. It’s such a current issue so it didn’t really feel like I was coming at it from a perspective, I was coming at it from a newcomer’s perspective, which I basically am,” explains Kirby.
“I knew a bit about it but I do not profess to be an authority on it so coming at it and being Valerie and seeing this thing for the first time – and it’s the first time for most people at that time that they’d seen anything like it – wasn’t really alien for me to play that. It was like, it made sense to me.
“You go along in that episode with her as she’s working it out, it’s really sensitively done that episode. I was really impressed with how it was handled,” she says.
Writer Heidi Thomas previously told Radio Times that she made a conscious decision to approach the issue as it would have been approached in the 1960s.
“The midwives do very much deal with it in terms of medical caregiving, rather than sexual deprivation,” she said at the time. “In the current climate when people discuss female circumcision there is an element of concern about women’s autonomy and sexual experience, quite rightly, but you do have to be careful not to impose a modern mindset on the attitude of either the white characters or the Somalian women in that part of the story.”
“We always have to observe historic boundaries. We take a very clear-eyed view of different cultures and how they operate in relationship to one another and the medical dangers of such a procedure” explained Thomas. “We are a medical drama, not a moral drama. We are not judging this woman. We are stating the facts of what it is like giving birth when you have had your sexual organs completely modified in a way that is not in the woman’s best physical interests.”
“It’s not OK,” she added. “In actual fact there is one small medical detail on screen which the BBC did question, in terms of taste and decency. And we said very firmly if you erase that small visual moment, it is underplaying the horror and the pain of the situation. But we wanted to look at the issue from several angles because that is what we always do.”
Call The Midwife continues on BBC1 on Sunday nights at 8pm