Call The Midwife's Helen says it hasn't won Bafta due to snobbery
‘Who needs awards?’: Call The Midwife actress Helen George says the BBC show hasn’t won a Bafta due to snobbery
It has delivered plenty of drama and huge audiences for the BBC but Call The Midwife hasn’t yet cradled a coveted Bafta award. And that’s all due to snobbery, according to one of its stars.
In an interview with The Mail on Sunday’s You magazine today, Helen George, who plays nurse Trixie Franklin, admits it is upsetting for the show not to have won the accolade. And she says there is a lot of pomposity against the programme.
‘I go to a lot of auditions where very successful directors sit there with their legs crossed and say, “Oh well, I’ve never watched Call The Midwife. I don’t have a TV.” ‘I think, “You’ve got a laptop you could watch it on but you’ve prejudged it.”’
Suit, Bottega Veneta, from mytheresa.com. Earrings, Alighieri. Shoes, Aquazzura
Co-star Stephen McGann, whose wife Heidi Thomas created the series, has previously said the show is over-looked because it doesn’t ‘bludgeon’ viewers with a PC message.
Ms George, pictured right in her You photoshoot, has been in the show since its launch in 2012.
She met her partner, Jack Ashton, who played Reverend Tom Hereward, on the drama, which is now filming its 11th series.
The BBC has committed to two making more series beyond that, taking it to at least 2024.
She may be the sweet, petite star of our best-loved Sunday night drama, but Call the Midwife’s HELEN GEORGE can hold her own against snobby directors and fat-shaming bullies, as Cole Moreton discovers
She was lying on her back about to be cut open. I can’t stop thinking about that as Helen George happily describes how the experience of having her daughter Wren Ivy has helped her make Call the Midwife.
‘I was filming a birth last week and we rehearsed our movements until it became choreography. That’s what I felt was happening when I gave birth three years ago,’ she says. ‘All the professionals in that room had worked together so long, it was like a dance. So if you can get to that point in a scene as well, it feels natural.’
How lovely, until you remember that in real life Helen was rushed into hospital for a caesarean three weeks early due to a dangerous build-up of bile acids in her body. ‘I had the feeling of my blood boiling and an itchiness all over – even in my ears and eyes,’ is how she described it later. Yet somehow she felt in safe enough hands to learn from the medics for her part as Nurse Trixie Franklin in one of the warmest, most uplifting shows on television.
That’s astonishing in itself, but hang on… She’s talking about filming new scenes, even though season ten is on air and coming to a climax now. Isn’t Trixie leaving? The fans seem to think so. They’re getting excited on social media at the thought of a character they have come to love over many years finding happiness at last.
We’ve watched her overcome struggles with loneliness and alcohol to emerge as a strong senior nurse with opinions as bright and bold as the 60s fashions she wears. Now conscience is calling Trixie to support the legalisation of abortion as the drama reaches 1966, putting her at odds with the nuns she lives and works with in the East End of London. There’s even a rich, handsome widower who might whisk her away. Surely we are being set up for a big departure?
‘An exit for Trixie? That’s interesting. How can I answer that?’ She’s not supposed to, certainly – spoilers and all that. Helen has exquisite manners and a cut-glass accent so you’d expect her to obey the rules, but when it comes to this actor, the character she plays and the show she’s in, appearances are deceptive.
‘We’re filming series 11 at the moment.’ OK, that’s news. ‘So I’m back. And I obviously won’t say if any other characters are back, but possibly they are…’ Her playful tone suggests the hot widower is sticking around. ‘People always say, “When is she going to find someone?” But I like the medical storylines and the confidence she’s finding in herself. If love comes along as well, fantastic.
I just hope that as long as I’m on Call the Midwife I am able to exist in both worlds and don’t just become a wife or a mother or something. There’s room for women in the show to be able to do it all.’
So there you go. You heard it here first. Big names such as Miranda Hart and Pam Ferris have come and gone since 2012, but Helen has grown into the star of the show, based on the memoirs of real-life nursing sister Jennifer Worth, and says she’s staying for now. She certainly has reasons to be grateful, having got a partner and baby out of it.
Helen began dating Jack Ashton, who used to play the Reverend Tom Hereward, after they filmed on location in South Africa in 2016. Actors on set, eh? ‘It’s not like you have time to have hobbies at the weekends. You’re on set for a long time every day and you don’t get to see many other people. We are like-minded people who understand the industry, the career and the long hours.’ It doesn’t always pan out that way, however. Before she met Jack, Helen was briefly married to the actor Oliver Boot after meeting him on Hotel Babylon.
Today, Helen, 36, lives with Jack, three-year-old Wren Ivy and Charlie the rescue jack russell in the East End, close to where the series is set (although it’s actually filmed in Chatham in Kent). ‘Lockdown was a kind of weirdly enforced leave, because I hate saying no to work and I never sit down. This was probably the longest I have spent with my daughter at home. She was just two then so we didn’t have to homeschool, thank god.’
They did move house, though, which seems a bold choice. ‘I had too much time to spend on Rightmove. I started thinking, “Well, if this virus is going to keep going, let’s move house.” The new place has a garage we’re going to convert to a bar, so at least we can go out somewhere in our own house!’ Helen looks happy there, in a room with a high ceiling, period details and what seems to be Farrow & Ball grey on the walls. She is wearing an elegant charcoal silk shirt that matches it all nicely.
Dress, Alexander Wang, from selfridges.com. Earrings, Alighieri. Sandals, Manu Atelier. Picture director: Ester Malloy. Fashion editor: Sophie Dearden, assisted by Stephanie Sofokleous. Make-up: Kelly Cornwell at Nylon Artists using Alleven. Hair: Kieron Lavine at Nylon Artists using Dyson and Schwarzkopf
Call the Midwife has been one of the hits of this year’s lockdown. ‘Men are starting to come into the room with the rest of the addicts. They were peeping around the door to begin with. There has been a snowball effect.’ Many new viewers will have been surprised. Yes, the show does make you laugh, cry and feel all fuzzy inside with its beautiful, inspiring stories of love and birth –but this season alone it has also covered the Thalidomide scandal, the physical effects of nuclear testing in the South Pacific and the horrific aftermath of Partition in India. There is still snobbery against it in the industry, though, she says. ‘I go to a lot of auditions where very successful directors sit there with their legs crossed and say, “Oh well, I’ve never watched Call the Midwife. I don’t have a TV.” I think, “You’ve got a laptop you could watch it on but you’ve prejudged it. And you don’t need to say that to me. Come on!”’
Judy Parfitt, who plays Sister Monica Joan, railed against the show being overlooked at the Baftas earlier this year, saying: ‘People want to be “woke” and feel they can’t nominate Call the Midwife.’ Killing Eve, Peaky Blinders and The End of the F***ing World have all won Best Drama in recent years, but Call the Midwife has not even received a nomination since it was given the Radio Times Audience Award by viewers in 2013.
‘I understand why it can be upsetting, because a Bafta is a wonderful accolade to receive, but Call the Midwife doesn’t need awards to be successful,’ says Helen firmly. But does she agree with her colleague? ‘We tackle every issue. Every cultural diversity is represented. We have a regular character with Down’s syndrome. For the past ten years, Call the Midwife has absolutely been ahead of the woke movement. But if people don’t see that, what does it matter? We’re still delivering messages of hope, acceptance and understanding to millions of people.’
Meanwhile, one former member of the cast has just won the biggest award of all. Emerald Fennell, who played Nurse Patsy for five seasons, wrote, produced and directed the movie Promising Young Woman, which was nominated for five Oscars and won Best Original Screenplay. ‘I was watching the ceremony thinking, “Gosh, this is amazing. It’s her first feature film and she’s won an Oscar!” Emerald has always been a star; she is multifaceted and talented and the kindest person in the world, so it’s wonderful to see this come to her. She deserves it.’
They were working together again before Covid, with Helen playing the queen in a new West End musical version of Cinderella by Andrew Lloyd Webber, scripted by Emerald. The original cast album was recorded and will be released soon but then things had to pause. ‘The queen in this is a quirky, mad character, but really fun with it. And full of plastic surgery.’ She mimes stretching her face back. ‘Fabulous!’
Will she be in the show if Cinderella gets a West End premiere this year? ‘It would have been wonderful but I can’t because I’m filming.’ What if Emerald asks her to be in a movie?
‘I think a lot of people are trying to sign up to Emerald’s films at the moment!’ she laughs. ‘You just see what happens. Hollywood’s a funny place. I’ve been over there and done pilot season. I kind of like it here; what we do still feels like an art form. There are fewer lawyers and men in suits. I’m intimidated walking into those big Hollywood glass offices.’
Another, more personal, reason for not going emerges when I ask if working on Call the Midwife has protected her from some of the convulsions in the industry after the #MeToo movement. ‘Yes, it’s been a safe haven. We’re produced by women, the show is written by women, the majority of the cast is female. So the feeling you can sometimes get on other jobs – of intimidation, being talked down to, being looked over – isn’t there.’ Has she experienced that in her other work? ‘I have done jobs where there’s a feeling that when a male actor, a male director or male director of photography speaks, you should be quiet,’ she says. ‘The fact I’m blonde and small-featured [has meant] I have found in the past that my voice has not been listened to. If there’s ever an issue or a problem I’m seen as making trouble. Whereas if there’s an issue on Call the Midwife it is listened to and understood.’
As Trixie in Call the Midwife
We’re talking at a time when more and more women are coming forward to speak about the sexual harassment they experienced at stage school, during the audition process or as young actors. ‘My experiences were not as bad as a lot of poor women who had to go through so much, but I feel as though there’s been a shift. When you have an intimate scene, you have an intimacy director now. Before, you just had to put up with whatever, being groped in whatever way the actor chose to grope you. If you said anything, you were causing an issue.’
Helen’s career took off like a rocket when Sir Elton John came to the Royal Academy of Music, where she was studying musical theatre, and chose her as a backing singer. The daughter of a professor and a social worker was suddenly on the road with a legend. ‘We played Wembley and the Royal Albert Hall. It was absolute madness, but because I was so young and arrogant I was like, “Oh yeah, just going on tour with Elton.” I didn’t realise the status of what I was doing.’
Immediately after that came another huge break. ‘My first job after graduation was The Woman in White in the West End, working with Michael Crawford and Andrew Lloyd Webber. It was fantastic, the dream I expected it to be.’ And then? ‘Nothing. I was a very shy kid and I really struggled with my nerves.’ She’d risen too far too fast. ‘I was being presented with massive auditions I just wasn’t ready for.’
What did she do instead? ‘The perfume hall at Harrods. I was probably the most depressed I’ve ever been in my life. Not to say it’s not a good job, but a lot of the people there are out-of-work actors, dancers or singers. Harrods is a lovely shop, but we had to wear three-inch heels for seven-hour shifts and full panto make-up! By the end of it I was really sick of all that. I didn’t wear perfume for years.’
Eventually, Helen was signed by an agent. ‘She picked me up, helped me have courage and pushed me really hard. I also just thought: “I’ve got to do something now, otherwise I have to give up.” Necessity makes you get rid of the shyness.’
Having been in Call the Midwife for three years, she risked doing Strictly Come Dancing as well in 2015. ‘I really struggled with just being Helen on screen. I get nervous and intimidated by [the fear of] saying or doing the wrong thing. I’m an actress for a reason.’ The fierce sudden interest in her private life didn’t help, as Helen reached the quarter-finals with partner Aljaz Skorjanec and the media found out her marriage to Oliver was over after just a couple of years. ‘I was so naive that I thought no one would be interested in me, so that was a shock. I soon realised I didn’t want all that celebrity stuff.’
So Helen and Jack kept their romance private, particularly when she became pregnant. ‘It helped to have Terri Coates, our midwifery adviser, on set. There were a couple of times when I was like, “Is this right? Is this normal?”’ Most fans knew she had given birth by the time that series came out and enjoyed spotting how the producers had tried to hide her pregnancy with capes and aprons, but one foolish viewer made the mistake of taking to Twitter to say she should be put on a diet. Helen gave his attempted fat-shaming short shrift: ‘Sorry if my chins offended you.
With partner Jack and daughter Wren Ivy in 2019
I chose to feed my baby healthily and not starve myself in a selfish act to look good on TV. Would you say this to a pregnant lady’s face?’ Her reply got almost 32,000 likes.
‘I’m pretty lucky, I don’t really get that much trouble and when I do I often just bite my tongue. But the weight thing? I thought that was rude.’ And it wasn’t just on social media. ‘Those people exist in everyday life. The things you hear as a pregnant woman if you’re seen eating in public: “Whoah, eating for two now?” Constant little comments like that really bug you and hurt you when your body is changing during pregnancy, which is almost like going through puberty,’ she says. ‘Then after the birth you’re expected to be thin within the month, because that’s what Instagram tells us. It’s a huge pressure. And as an actor you have to do all that on TV… By the time I saw that tweet I’d had months’ worth of comments and s***. And I just broke. It was like, “You’re not getting away with that.”’
Maybe he thought she’d be a pushover because she plays a pretty nurse in a cosy drama about babies. But, as we’ve discovered, there’s so much more than that to Call the Midwife and Helen. ‘When I want to be feisty, I can be,’ she says. ‘I have a voice and I’m not afraid to use it. Like Trixie, I suppose.’
Right now everyone on set is having to deal with changes brought on by Covid. ‘Yeah, it’s been a long week,’ she says, looking frazzled but happy. ‘It’s tricky trying to perform a birth with two metres between the midwife and the mother!’ Silicone babies are now standing in for the real newborns they have always used for those birth scenes that make us gasp, smile and maybe shed a tear. ‘After the birth the real baby is used, with the real mother sometimes dressed as the character.’ So those are the real mum’s hands we see? ‘I won’t ruin the magic but, yeah, there are clever ways of doing it. I hear the babies now, in the distance, but I don’t normally see them. I do a lot with the jelly babies.’
She clearly loves the job. Series 12 and 13 have just been commissioned, so does Helen intend to try to see this through to the end, whenever that is? ‘I’ve always said it would be fun if we got to the 80s and Trixie could wear massive shoulder pads, but I think the nuns the series is based on only made it to the early 70s, so who knows what could happen? I’ll take it a series at a time.’
Call the Midwife continues Sundays at 8pm on BBC One. The Special Delivery anniversary episode will be shown on Monday 31 May, 8pm, also on BBC One
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