Vanessa Redgrave reflects on 10 years of Call the Midwife: “It’s passionately human”

Vanessa Redgrave is the quiet voice of humanity on Call the Midwife, but at 84 the theatrical legend remains as fiery as ever about politics, God and women. Just don’t call her a feminist…

Big RT Interview: Vanessa Redgrave

Vanessa Redgrave does not waste words on idle chat.

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I dive in with the inescapable first question about lockdown – was she good at coping with it? “Yes.” Was it frustrating? “No, I’ve been writing a lot.” A memoir? “No. Won’t tell you more. But it’s not a play, and it’s not a TV series.”

By the time our Zoom conversation ends, I form a private suspicion that it will be political. Or even religious.

We’re here to discuss 10 years of Call the Midwife, in which she plays a small but vital part. Each week, after the title frames evoke 1950s London docklands, a soft, wise, elderly voice talks of change and love, humility and endurance. TV screens more accustomed to cop-show violence and vapid celebrity gently ease us into the deep simplicities of birth and death; as each story ends, the voice speaks again of humane values. It could be sentimental, but its sincerity holds you: it represents Jennifer Worth, a retired lay midwife working in the old, poverty-stricken East End alongside Anglican nuns.

When the series started in January 2012, it was a slight shock to recognise the voice. This was not the sort of gentle veteran you’d think of casting as an aged nurse, this was Vanessa Redgrave: scion of an acting dynasty, whose birth 84 years ago was announced onstage at the Old Vic by Laurence Olivier, as Hamlet, declaring: “Laertes has a daughter!” He was, of course, referring to his co-star, Michael Redgrave.

More than a star, she is a lifelong firebrand:  CND, Workers’ Revolutionary Party, anti-war protestor, supporting a Guantanamo captive, demonstrating outside HMP Pentonville about a prison book ban. She isn’t cosy, yet that voiceover brings a tear every time. As Jane Fonda, her co-star in the 1977 film Julia, said: “Her voice seems to come from some deep place that knows all suffering and all secrets.”

When Redgrave talks, you do feel that her furious activism is fuelled by compassion. She liked Worth’s memoir: “I really love narratives told by people who can bring us the period they lived, worked and struggled in. And I like the down-to-earth way that the script approaches these histories.”

Nobody expected the series to run for 10 years. “The early director didn’t think it would get any attention at all – nuns, midwives, the East End, the 50s..!” But it gripped viewers, even if it rarely received more than a patronising nod from the critics. For each episode, Redgrave says, “I see my introduction, and we look at the themes and the footage that’s been shot, and a wonderful hands-on producer fills me in. It’s about times I can remember: I put myself into it. They’ve got some lovely actors, not only the nuns in Nonnatus House who are brilliant, but all the characters. I believe in them, I trust them. It is passionately human about the rights and dignity of the poorest and least regarded.”

But what about Sister Julienne and the rest?  Not to mention the retired eccentric Sister Monica Joan? After a life of stardom and political activism, can Redgrave relate to their austere vows and devout daily prayer? Does she understand nuns?

“I have had plenty of contact with nuns! As for prayer, it is central. It just is.” Does she pray? “Can’t say yes to that, can’t say no. Lots of people in my family were religious. I had a great-aunt, Mother Superior of a convent, my grandfather’s sister. He was a Catholic, and wrote his life in two volumes, typed out. I’ve gone through it. I went to church a lot when very young; I still go now and then. It’s too big a subject to talk about now. If you want to go deeper into why people need to pray and go to church, talk to them.”

Call the Midwife shows social and medical change affecting the small world of Poplar and the bicycling midwives who serve it. From bomb-sites and the working docks to rock ’n’ roll, miniskirts, changing sexual behaviour and the last years of illegal abortions, it becomes a miniature chronicle of Britain’s growth and its crises.

“Like [the prescribing to pregnant women of] Thalidomide, “which has never really been expiated,” says Redgrave. “And the Windrush people coming. And homelessness and evictions, the terrible way poor people were treated, which” – she adds sharply – “I can’t help pointing out and remarking to you is much worse today. People living in sheer poverty in this country – women, especially, have the toughest time. I’m shivering now, because it’s pretty cold, but I’m one of the lucky ones – I can turn my boiler up. We still need change; I’d like to change this awful Universal Credit, and make sure there’s decent social support for the huge numbers who live in dire circumstances. Especially women, single mothers with children.”

But she shows irritation when I bring up the f-word. “I am not a feminist! If you’ve read anything I’ve ever said you know that! Being equal to men, that’s different. But not everybody who was a suffragette was a feminist. Emmeline Pankhurst was a socialist before she was a feminist. She worked hard for women, because of their suffering under that legislation. It still horrifies me today when I think of what they went through, and how they were treated, by men and by women. Women always keep things together for both women and men, and the worst is always suffered by women! But it’s socialism: equality, not feminism.”

I ask about modern activism, and whether she welcomed the #MeToo campaign. “What is that? You’ll have to tell me, what is it?”

I try, but she bats it away: “I’ve been busy, doing a lot of writing.” She is, however, more aware of the campaigns around the history of slavery.

“The way that history is taught in schools is terrible, and it’s dropped much too soon. Thank God things are coming up now. No, I don’t think they should pull down the statues. We need more statues, different ones, not just commemorating men who made money out of slavery. But I don’t think they should go: we’ve got to keep on taking on board the fact that we are a country that has done terrible, cruel things. We still are, when we refuse to give visas to asylum seekers, put them into prison, into barracks, and deport them back into an area we destroyed way back in history. We’re still doing the horror.

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“And look at the slavery going on now: sex slavery. It’s happening in cities and towns, not tucked away in caverns in the mountains. There’s plenty going on.”

We turn to her work. She is a cinema legend all the way from Antonioni’s Blowup, which conjured up a much groovier 1966 London than Call the Midwife’s latest storylines. I have seen her onstage, majestically quirky in Driving Miss Daisy (2011) and an angry lioness of a Queen Margaret in Richard III (2016). In her 78th year, a bizarre but beguiling Old Vic rendering of Much Ado about Nothing had her and James Earl Jones playing the young lovers (he was then 82 and taking nips of oxygen in the wings).

Redgrave is a known maverick: after he had directed her in A Song at Twilight in 1999, Sheridan Morley told me: “She never did the same performance twice, and if I tried to say, ‘Keep that in,’ she asked, ‘What did I do?’”

But her causes burn through any topic. She veers off from her own career to speak warmly of Small Axe, Steve McQueen’s TV films about West Indian immigrants, and to praise Ken Loach. “I’m proud that people in my profession are doing this, showing the injustices.” Distressed by the refugee crisis, in 2017 she made Sea Sorrow with Ralph Fiennes, Juliet Stevenson and Emma Thompson. Redgrave’s directorial debut used poetry and had a great deal of heart, but had mixed reviews.

So is she an optimist, believing like Martin Luther King that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”?

“It’s a little bit useless to think in those terms,” she says. “I wouldn’t dream of rebuking you, but, no, I am not.” Why not? “If one wants things to get better, one has to work for them. I don’t feel I should go around holding my head up if I wasn’t doing something to help.”

Redgrave is said to have once sold her house to fund a documentary about Palestinians and in 1971 used her fee for Mary, Queen of Scots to pay for a nursery school in her neighbourhood. “Most people I know do what they can, but what’s going on at the top, in government, isn’t tolerable.”

Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot
Richard Harris and Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot (Warner Brothers/Getty)

Though restlessly engaged with the griefs of the world, she is reluctant to talk about her own. Ten years ago, she suffered a triple loss within 18 months: first her daughter Natasha Richardson was killed in a skiing accident, and then both her siblings, Corin and Lynn Redgrave, died. Does such hard experience enrich an actor’s work?

“I’m not sure. Maybe you cross into a place most people haven’t… life has taught me a great deal, I suppose.” Did she, though, share the sense that, as Judi Dench expressed in widowhood, “more of me went to work”?

“No, I don’t think that happens. I have to keep going, anyway. To pay my way. There’s the nitty-gritty of the council tax, the VAT, the income tax. How is one going to keep one’s home otherwise? I’ve been a long time in this block of flats. Then when my mum [Rachel Kempson, Lady Redgrave] was living with me, she had a stroke, so she couldn’t climb stairs.

“I managed to move to a ground-floor flat, which I’m in now, with a ‘backyard’ as the Americans call it, but actually that’s a good description: masses of trees and bushes all around from other gardens. I knew what it meant to her to sit in the fresh air and see friends. It’s terrifying to think that most people have had to endure the last year without that.”

Our time’s up. She is tired. But looking forward to work. “What’s good about theatre, radio and television, is that once in a blue moon something wonderful comes along like Call the Midwife. Something that makes everybody think and feel and be more human and genuine. Something that hasn’t got false.”

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Call the Midwife concludes tonight on BBC One at 8pm. If you’re looking for more to watch, check out our handy TV Guide.

This edition of The Big RT Interview originally appeared in the Radio Times magazine. For the biggest interviews and the best TV listings subscribe to Radio Times now and never miss a copy.