The origins of Call the Midwife
Tea Time Tidbit for the week of May 6, 2019
Call the Midwife has become a springtime Sunday evening staple since it first aired on MPT in 2012.
The series was originally based on the memoirs of retired nurse and midwife Jennifer Worth, who had given up the nursing profession in 1973 to re-train as a music teacher and concert pianist. She also travelled the country as a chorister, but in the early 1990s at the age of 57, Worth developed a debilitating case of eczema. Worth managed to cure the agonizing condition through diet and she documented her experiences in a book she wrote in 1997 called Eczema and Food Allergy. The book developed a cult following and it was suggested to Worth by her publishers that she write another. Thus, in 2002, the first volume in Worth’s Call the Midwife trilogy was published.
When series creator and writer Heidi Thomas was first given the Call the Midwife book to read in 2008 by producer Pippa Harris, Thomas had never heard of it or of Jennifer Worth. But, as soon as she read it she apparently told her husband, Stephen McGann, who plays Dr. Turner in the series, "I think I can do something with this."’ Thomas admits to that being quite the understatement!
From the day it first aired in the U.K. on January 15, 2012, Call the Midwife became an instant success and the series was renewed for a second season. Midway through the second series, however, there was no more material from which to draw inspiration. Fortunately, Thomas had had the foresight midway through season one to hire a journalist and researcher to interview people who’d written into the show, sharing their own midwifing experiences. Some of the ladies being interviewed were in their eighties or nighties and their oral testimonies provided Thomas with a “wonderful resource from which to draw.” She also had the satisfaction knowing that she was “keeping people’s stories alive.”
Another resource Thomas has used from which to develop stories is The Wellcome Trust, an organization founded in 1936 that funds research to improve human and animal health. It was there that she found a facsimile of the annual report of the medical officer of health for the year 1960, which provided Thomas with “a snapshot of the health of people in urban Britain at this particular point in time.”
Jennifer Worth in
One of the health problems mentioned in the report involved caravan dwellers, which gave Thomas the idea for the episode you might recall in season four of the series. Thomas reached out to the Irish traveler community who read the script and not only provided helpful suggestions, but also offered to facilitate the caravan burning so that it was conducted in the correct ceremonial manner. Thomas remembers that particular scene as being “one of the most moving moments I think we ever had on set.”
Other storylines that came about because of the report were the ones covering Polio, which you may recall struck Timothy Turner in the Christmas Special of 2013, and also various social issues such as the neglect of children. It was in the 1960 annual report booklet, for instance, that Thomas read about the “cleansing station” – a building which was set aside for people who were so verminous and dirty they had to be industrially cleansed. Long-time viewers will recall that sequence being depicted in episode one of season four.
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