Call the Midwife’s Leonie Elliott on filming “difficult” racism scenes
The actor playing the show's first West Indian midwife on how her family history inspired her performance
Call the Midwife’s newest recruit immediately felt an affinity with her midwife character due to a huge coincidence: their families hail from exactly the same part of Jamaica.
Lucille Anderson is the first West Indian character to arrive at Nonnatus House, reflecting the number of Caribbean nurses who came to Britain in the early 1960s to work for the NHS. And Leonie Elliott says she was desperate to play Lucille as soon as she heard about the role.
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“I felt I had an instant connection to the character,” she says. “There was lots of synchronicity between my family and Lucille’s family. My dad’s sister came from Jamaica to the UK to train as a nurse, and my mother’s family are actually from the same parish as Lucille, Mandeville.
“It’s a place I used to go to every Christmas. I know that part of the world very well; I know what the houses look like; what food they eat. I thought, ‘I really want this one’.”
Leonie’s family moved to Britain in the 1960s, like many others in the Caribbean who were encouraged to come over to gain qualifications and went on to do civil service jobs in areas such as healthcare or transport.
“I asked what their first impressions of Britain were and of course the answer was that it was so cold! Lucille arrives during the Big Freeze, which made it easy for me.
“I also asked where they’d go to socially, where they would worship, and where my grandma would get her hair done. There weren’t specific salons for Caribbean hair, so they’d go to someone’s house and get it done in their kitchen. All of that helped me to do the character justice.”
Elliott, who has been acting professionally since she was eight years old and whose biggest role before Call the Midwife was in the Lenny Henry-scripted drama Danny and the Human Zoo, says she has loved being part of such a hugely popular drama. But she does admit she found some scenes difficult to film.
For, while the other midwives at Nonnatus House welcome Lucille with open arms, some of the local women are not so at ease about having a black midwife attending them.
“Lucille does face a bit of hostility from some patients,” Elliott explains. “Filming those scenes was quite difficult at times. It’s not the nicest thing to do, especially when you know your family may possibly have faced some of these prejudices, because that makes it more personal.”