I spot Helen George through the window pushing a pram and looking remarkably well groomed for someone who has recently given birth. She’s in black-feathered slippers, which is exactly the sort of thing her character might wear. Trixie is the ditzy blonde with a beehive and red lipstick who adds a touch of glamour to Call the Midwife, but it soon becomes clear that Helen George is quite different from her character. She describes herself as having the sporting tastes of a 50-year-old man – she likes boxing and watching Aston Villa with a nice cup of Bovril – and has strong views on the NHS, childbirth and sexism in the entertainment industry.
“I do get stereotyped as the dumb blonde. A lot of the parts I get offered are accessories to a male character: the blonde girlfriend, the doctor’s wife, or simply having a romantic scene… I mean really, just kill me,” she says wearily. “But the great thing about Call the Midwife is that the women are the protagonists.” She points out that over the course of six series, Trixie has gone from being quite a frivolous character to a complex young woman struggling to overcome alcoholism and a difficult childhood.
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The period drama continues to pull in big audiences. The Christmas special – set in the Big Freeze of 1962, with rosy-cheeked midwives cycling to the rescue through snow drifts – was viewed by nearly ten million people and was the most-watched programme on Christmas Day.
Eagle-eyed viewers might have noticed that Trixie was looking more voluptuous than usual. That’s because George was pregnant with her first child when they started shooting. “I did the Christmas special and the first four episodes [of the new series, which starts on Sunday], but after that I was too big. I was always carrying things or sitting behind a high desk to conceal my bump. My face and boobs were getting bigger and bigger, it was ridiculous. That’s why they dressed me up as the pantomime cow in the Christmas show.”
Settled in a cosy pub near her east London home, with a cup of tea, I’m introduced to baby Wren, who has the same huge saucer-like eyes as her mother, but with a shock of bright-red hair. Wren is a real-life spin-off production – both parents are actors in Call the Midwife. Dad, Jack Ashton, plays the attractive young vicar. The couple had a brief fictional romance on screen before things got real when they were filming in South Africa two years ago.
In a story that could have come straight from the show, little Wren made a dramatic entry into the world four months ago. She was born early because George experienced complications with her pregnancy. The actress started to itch all over her body. “I was rubbing my back against the stair carpet to scratch myself. Even my eyes were itching,” she says.
She was diagnosed with a liver condition called ICP (intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy) which leads to a build-up of bile in the mother’s blood and can result in the baby being stillborn. (By a strange coincidence, I suffered from the same thing when I was pregnant. The itching nearly drove me insane but, unlike George, I didn’t know what was happening and almost went to the doctor too late.) “It runs in my family,” says George, “which is fortunate because I knew that I should go and get a blood test straight away.”
Had she ever come across cholestasis in a Call the Midwife script?
“Heidi Thomas looked into doing a story about it, but then discovered that ICP wasn’t diagnosed until the 1970s or 80s. The new series is set in 1963 so it wouldn’t have worked.”
The condition affects about 5,500 pregnant women a year in the UK and George has now become a patron of the charity ICP Support.
Like Trixie, George was a bit of party girl, but motherhood has put a stop to that. “I was someone who went out a lot.” So how is she coping now?
“It’s interesting… it has its moments. I can’t just pop out to the pub or the theatre when I want to. Jack does look after the baby while I go out for a couple of hours, and I don’t feel guilty about it. I think it’s necessary for my mental health”.
She will start work on series eight of Call the Midwife in April. Who will look after baby Wren when both her parents are back on set? “They let me take my dog on set, and other actresses have taken their babies [Claire Foy did so during the filming of the first series of The Crown], but I haven’t looked for nannies or child-minders yet. I won’t even get a dog-walker for my Jack Russell, so I don’t know how I’ll cope with handing my child over to someone else.
I’m curious to know whether working on Call the Midwife affected her birth plan. Did she go for a natural birth? Was Wren delivered by a midwife in an NHS hospital? There’s a pause and I can see she’s thinking about what to say.
“I haven’t spoken about this before… but I chose to have a C-section [caesarean]. It coincided with the fact that I had to deliver her early, but even without that, I would have gone for an elective caesarean because of what I’d learnt on Call the Midwife.”
At this point I nearly choke on my tea. She calmly explains her reasons in a way that makes me think she knows this will be controversial.
“Working on Call the Midwife means that lots of people tell you their horror stories about birth. I’m not against natural birth, I’m pro whatever you feel is right for you.
“Some people may not understand why I elected to have a C-section, but it was right for me at the time. It’s not because I’m ‘too posh to push’, it’s about what I think my body is capable of. I’m not good with pain… I faint when I stub my toe.
“Not that a C-section is the easy way out. It’s a major operation. I have a large scar on my stomach. You can’t exercise for a long time and you need help to pick up the baby.”
I’m with her on the pain issue. I had my son in France, where natural births are pretty rare, and having an epidural was a number one priority on my birth plan. But in Britain, it’s not uncommon for women to feel guilty for accepting any kind of medical intervention. “If men went through labour, I think the majority would choose the pain-free way,” says George, “but there is a feeling that women should have to feel pain.”
As Trixie, she had to “perform” a C-section during filming two years ago for the 2016 Christmas special, which was set in a mission hospital in South Africa. “I did lots of research on C-sections and decided that if I ever got pregnant myself, that ’s what I would do.
“Lots of people were shocked by that decision, but I’ve experienced natural childbirth through the legs of many an actress and I didn’t want to do it myself,” she says with a smile.
She had her baby at an NHS hospital, Guy’s and St Thomas’ in south-east London, and is full of praise for the staff – including the anaesthetist who took photographs for her on her phone. “I was fascinated by the scientific, medical side of it so I have loads of pictures of my C-section and the baby coming out. They’re quite graphic, but no different to the images on Call the Midwife.”
I express my surprise that women can choose to have an elective C-section in NHS maternity wards, but George says that they can. “I think there needs to be a national conversation about how C-sections are alright and they don’t just have to be for emergencies. So if you do feel you want one, you have the confidence to talk to your doctor or midwife about it. There’s a lot of shame around it, and people tried to convince me not to have one.”
It’s clear from her Twitter feed that George has a highly developed social conscience, frequently posting messages about charities involved with refugees, childbirth or bereavement. She was born in Birmingham to a social worker mum and politics professor dad, so I wonder whether they discussed these issues.
“I wouldn’t say we discussed politics much, but because my mum was a social worker I had an understanding of the welfare system and the NHS. I worry about the crisis in the Health Service, which of course impacts on midwifery. I know it’s hard because we’re all living longer, but I can’t help feeling there is a move to privatise it, to push it until it breaks and then force us to adopt a different model of healthcare that won’t be as good – just look at how many Americans are bankrupted by medical bills. We don’t know how lucky we are.” She’s also worried about the impact of Brexit on the NHS. “So many of the staff I met at Guy’s and St Thomas’ are from Europe and I worry that a lot of them will leave.”
One of the most interesting aspects of Call the Midwife is how it follows the birth of the NHS in the wake of the Second World War. The new series opens in 1963, with a new, West Indian midwife, Lucille Anderson, played by Leonie Elliott, featuring as a regular character. Through her story, we learn about the experiences of the Caribbean nurses who came to Britain in the 1960s and became the backbone of a fast-expanding NHS.
Trixie’s storyline in the new series will explore a very 60s subject: sex outside marriage. One of the reasons George’s pregnancy wasn’t written into the script was because Trixie is in the early stages of her new relationship with dentist Christopher (played by Jack Hawkins). In the opening episode, we see Trixie struggling with whether it’s right for her to share a hotel room with him on holiday.
“They haven’t had sex yet, so a pregnancy would have moved the story on a bit prematurely,” she explains.
Meanwhile, back in the real world, there has been much speculation about whether George herself – who is divorced from actor Oliver Boot, whom she married in 2011 – has plans to wed her co-star Ashton, the father of Wren. Several newspapers reported that she was engaged, after spotting in a photograph what one tabloid described as a “large diamond ring on her engagement finger”.
She rolls her eyes. “No, we have no plans. The rumours started after I posted a photo of my baby shower [after Wren had been born] on Instagram, wearing this ring.” She holds out her hand to show me a piece of costume jewellery with a large piece of blue glass. “I only wore it on that finger because my hands swelled up when I was pregnant!”
The day after we meet, she posts this on Twitter: “Dear Daily Mail, I do understand that your word is sacred. However, would you mind not printing that I am engaged/ newly married. I am a divorcee who is co-parenting. Scandalous, I know. But luckily, it’s 2018, not 1718.”