The beloved British period drama Call the Midwife is finally back on our screens with its ninth season, and while we're enjoying the adventures of the midwives of Nonnatus House, some of us might be wondering exactly how true to life the show actually is.
Is Call the Midwife a true story?
Not exactly. The show was inspired by a series of memoirs from Jennifer Worth—Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse, and Farewell to the East End. Though many of the characters and situations, particularly in the early seasons, are borrowed from Worth's books, the show is nonetheless a work of fiction.
Are any of the characters inspired by real people?
Jenny Lee, the lead character played by Jessica Raine in the first three seasons of the show is based on Worth herself. (An older version of Lee, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave, also serves as the narrator for the entire series.) After receiving nursing and midwifery training, Worth became a nurse in London in the early 1950s, working in part with the Sisters of St. John the Divine—experiences she later detailed in her books.
She didn't spend her whole career as a midwife, though; in fact, a significant portion of Worth's nursing career was spent caring for cancer patients at the Marie Curie Hospital. In 1963 she married Philip Worth, with whom she had two daughters. By the early '70s, Worth decided to leave nursing behind, and dedicated herself, instead, to a career in music.
Though she may not have been a lifelong midwife, Worth did remain close with some of the women she worked with as a nurse, who later went on to inspire Call the Midwife.
“I have lovely memories of Sister Julienne,” Worth's daughter Suzannah Hart told RadioTimes in 2017. “Sister Julienne would write letters to me and [her sister] Juliette, with little stories and beautiful illustrations down the side in felt pen or watercolour. She’d come and visit us too, and towards the end of her life, by which time the community had moved to Birmingham, my mother would visit her every week.”
Worth also maintained a close friendship with Cynthia (who, in the show, becomes a nun but in real life married a vicar) and even made her godmother to her daughter Suzannah.
In 2011, Worth was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and passed away, less than a year before Call the Midwife debuted.
Was Poplar really like it's shown on the show?
London's East End is almost a character unto itself in the show. The area was a longstanding home for London's working class poor and a haven for the city's immigrant population, so both the impoverished situations of many of the families seen on the show as well as the diversity of their backgrounds would have been accurate for the '50s and '60s.
Similarly, the varying roles of the nurses of Nonnatus House—including home visits for the elderly and infirm as well as prenatal care—would have been representative of the kind of work nurses during the time period would have done as part of the National Health Service or NHS. The NHS was instituted after the end of WWII as part of the UK's welfare state in an effort to ensure that all Britains has access to medical care.
However, not everything in the show is exactly as real life midwives would have experienced it in the '50. According to Susan Eckersley who was a real midwife in the London at the time, while the nurses did go from place to place on bikes, it wasn't uncommon for hospitals to provide them with taxis for home births due to the size and weight of the equipment they need to carry.
What about the birthing scenes?
To make the birthing scenes as realistic as possible, the show employs a trained midwife to help out the actors. “One baby being born on screen will take at least five hours to shoot, and very often the actor playing the mother will never have had a baby herself," according to producer Ann Tricklebank, who was interviewed by RadioTimes. "Our midwifery adviser Terri Coates puts the actor through the birthing process following the structure of that week’s story, whether the birth is at home or in hospital or in the back of a car.”
And as for those babies, Call the Midwife takes its youngest stars seriously. The show uses real newborns (up to around 8 weeks old) to play the babies that are given birth to on the show. “We use about 60 to 70 [babies] a series,” said Tricklebank. The babies work 15 minutes on and 15 minutes off and the set is kept quiet and comfortable to prevent stressing the little ones.
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