U.K. hit “Call the Midwife” ready to deliver for PBS in the States

Its first season has already been a smash hit in the United Kingdom — even out-rating the vaunted Downton Abbey — and the drama is already filming its second season, and working on a Christmas special (which will, of course, also go up against a Downton special). Now, expectant Americans will finally get to see what all the excitement is about as Call the Midwife makes its U.S. debut on PBS Sept. 30 at 8pm ET (check local listings). And like all the little miracles the midwives in the series deliver, the show has been worth the wait. Rather than a mere placeholder on PBS until Season 3 of Downton Abbey airs in the States in January, Call the Midwife is an exceptional drama in its own right, delivering emotion, wonderful performances, captivating stories and a terrific sense of time and place (and a lot of bicycling). In this case, the time and place is late 1950s London, in the city’s impoverished East End. The series is true-to-life, based on the memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth and her experiences as a young midwife tending to the poor East End residents, and her own awakening to lives outside of her own.

Jessica Raine stars as young Jenny Lee, newly qualified as a midwife, who starts her career with an attachment to an order of nursing nuns at a place called Nonnatus House, where they cater to the medical needs of the East Enders. The conditions and characters Jenny encounters are quite a change from what she has been accustomed to growing up in the English countryside, and her growth is among the many fascinating elements of the series. We experience her increasing awareness of a world outside of her own — in addition to her further self-awareness — not only through her immediate experiences as a young woman, but also through the opening and closing narration of each episode, which is spoken by the always-commanding Vanessa Redgrave as the voice of the mature Jenny looking back on her years at Nonnatus House.

One of the underlying themes that runs throughout the series is love, of varying sorts — motherly love, of course, but also sibling love, marital love, love for one’s God and more. When I talked to some of the cast members a few months ago, they thought that was an important element of the program.

“It really struck me when I read the book,” says Jessica Raine, “that it was always ever-present in terms of Jenny, I think she comes into Nonnatus House running away from this relationship which, you know, we don’t really get to find out about, it’s all the more intriguing. She’s very closed off to it, and I saw it as her witnessing all of these different situations kind of prizes open her heart, in a way, and she realizes that she’s not a bad person, or the intracacies and complications of love, as well as the power of it.”

“And then the power through nursing of love,” adds Helen George, who plays midwife Trixie, “as well, because I think the midwives and the nuns, they heal with their love and their acceptance and their faith, and it’s not all about drugs. It’s about caring for a patient, and knowing the patient, and willing that patient to overcome awful obstacles, and to love that patient better.”

Raine added a bit more about the man that her character can’t seem to get over when we first meet her in the series. “I think it’s a really deeply affecting love that she’s had for this man, and it’s really affected the way she’s lived her life. I think she came to Nonnatus House and was running away from it in many ways and threw herself into her work. As in life, I think it’s always going to be with her. I don’t think you can shake those things off; they inform who you are. Yeah, sure. You get over things. But you also learn from them, stop doing things in your life because of them. I find that relationship really intriguing. I wrote my own kind of backstory in.”

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Enhancing the emotions of the series — not just love, but the wide gamut we experience through not just the main characters, but also some of the secondary characters we and the midwives meet — is a terrific combination of music used in montages. It’s a selection of not only hit standards from the ’50s, but also sacred music sung by the nuns, that combine to enhance the drama and emotional impact. Producer Hugh Warren told me that was a conscious decision.

“Very much so,” he said. “The montage sequences to the commercial music — a lot of which are American, of course, because that’s the music that was becoming popular at that time — they were scripted. They were written to those pieces. As were the montages with the religious music with the nuns in the chapel. I was concerned that the religious context might put some people off, but it’s such moving music. I think just hearing those voices, you can’t help but be moved by it.”

And among the voices you’ll hear is costar Laura Main, who plays one of the nuns, Sister Bernadette.

“That’s the very first thing we did,” Main told me. “We went to a recording studio. It was a nice added extra [to be able to sing].”

[During our group interview, Raine said to Main: “I was watching the monitor of you guys singing, and I didn’t realize it was you. I thought, ‘Who’s doing that bit?’ And the camera was on you. Someone turned around and said, ‘That’s Laura.’ I’ve never heard you sing before. I was like, ‘Amazing. Stunning. Pure voice.'”]

George added about the music, somewhat speaking in the mindset of her character: “What’s interesting is that music is an outlet for both sides of us. Because for the nuns it’s contemplative, because the daytime is so stressful and so tiring and they don’t have TV, so it’s very sort of release, a mental release. And same with the midwives. We put on records, and LPs, and that was our release, and the radio, and music was so important to us at that time.”

One thing you’ll also note about the series that places it in its time beside the music is its medical knowledge (or lack thereof, in some cases). Doctors smoke, and even pregnant women smoke in the clinic while waiting for the doctor. I asked the actresses what they were most surprised to learn about medical knowledge of the late 1950s as related to childbirth.

“To me,” said Raine, “there was a position to give birth in [having a woman go on her side]. That shocked me because having spoken to a lot of women who have given birth I think I know which one is more comfortable. But being on your side, gravity can’t do anything. That was a real shock for me.”

“I think the shock is,” said George, “also, that even in 1957 — which isn’t that long ago — childbirth is still so dangerous, and even to this day it’s such a dangerous thing to go through. And yet we do it, and it happens, and it works. And it’s — touch wood — most of the time okay, even if there’s no gas, no epideral. We literally have very few medical items to aid birth. But it works, because it’s supposed to.”

Obviously, in a show about midwives, there are plenty of scenes involving childbirth. And they are realistic, given the methods of the time, though tastefully presented through clever directing (there is lots of screaming). Neither Raine, George nor Main are mothers themselves, so I asked the actresses if any of the women playing the delivering mothers in the series had given birth in real life and had given insight on how realistic birthing scenes should be.

“They couldn’t remember!” laughed Raine, about some of the actresses who had indeed given birth. “They had to be taught how to scream. And [how to make] the noises, because they’re very … guttural. Terri [Coates], the on-hand midwife and supervisor [helped]. Girls who’d given birth … it was just gone. Terri told me, as soon as the baby is put into the mother’s arms, all of that pain — hours and hours  of labor — is just bing! Gone. And you’ve just got this thing where you’ve got this hormone that takes over your body where it’s filled with love and you don’t think about the pain anymore.”

This dedication to getting such details correct shows how seriously the cast and crew worked to bring Jennifer Worth’s memoirs to life. Sadly, Ms. Worth passed away in 2011, shortly before filming on the series began. But according to Warren, she was involved in the early development of the show.

“[Executive producer] Heidi [Thomas] spent a lot of time with her,” Warren said. “[Worth] knew that Jessica had been cast; she was very happy about that. She knew that Miranda [Hart, who plays midwife Chummy] had been cast. It was unfortunate timing. She died very quickly. It was a huge irony that she died three weeks before we turned over filming. I think that affected everybody, probably Jess more than most.”

“We had a moment of silence just before we started shooting the very first scene of the entire shoot on the very first day,” said Raine. “I didn’t know what to expect. It made you think, ‘This is real. We really have to honor this woman’s memory.’ Her husband visited the set. Her daughters and granddaughters visited the set. They were thrilled to witness what was going on. And I was particularly moved when [Worth’s husband] Philip was there, because weeks after she died he was there, and when someone’s grieving you can really feel the ruins of it. And I certainly felt … it upset me. But in a positive way. You’re kind of, ‘Let’s make this REALLY good!'”

“And the granddaughters,” added George, “actually, were supporting artists in some of our scenes. We have them dressed up as nuns. It was so fantastic that they could be actively part of it, as well. It was really lovely.”

Call the Midwife airs Sundays at 8pm ET on PBS starting Sept. 30.


Photos © Neal Street Productions 2011. Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz