BBC Entertainment’s Call the Midwife delivers on the drama, script and performances. Debashine Thangevelo secured an exclusive chat with lead actress Jessica Raine to find out more about the birth of this internationally acclaimed true-life series and how, for |her, this role is more a labour of love…
A STORY born from a first-hand account instead of the imagination has an allure that is far-reaching and that is perhaps why all directors enjoy seeking out such tales.
Jennifer Worth’s best-selling memoirs, Call the Midwife, Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End, were the catalysts for BBC Entertainment’s new series, Call the Midwife, with Jessica Raine cast as Jenny Lee.
The British actress is perfect for the role as she is an unsullied face with a handful of credits (Garrow’s Law, Robin Hood, Elsewhere and The Woman in Black) under her belt.
Oddly enough, her mother gave her the books as a gift a year before she went to the audition.
She says: “By the time I auditioned, I was a big fan and very familiar with the books. Also, I used to live in East London and that helped paint a very vivid picture.”
A graduate of the University of the West of England Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the 30-something actress explains: “I have done years of theatre before (this). Having worked with Andy Price, well, he got me an audition.”
Determined to clinch the role, she shares: “From the very first reading, you could see Jenny Lee was very wise and young. And very inexperienced with a high moral compass. You kind of get all your clues (about the character) from the writing. She is quite buttoned up.”
Set in London’s East End circa the 1950s, Raine, as the lead protagonist, shares the limelight with Miranda Hart (Miranda) as Chummy, Jenny Agutter (Spooks) as Sister Julienne, Pam Ferris (Little Dorrit) as Sister Evangelina and Laura Main (Monarch of the Glen) as Sister Bernadette, who all work at Nonnatus House and visit the indigent pregnant women of Poplar.
The six-part series centred on midwifery is perched on heartrending, gritty stories, which are also injected with humour to alleviate the intensity of the drama.
Raine concedes she felt the pressure of playing the lead: “Waking up on the first day, I was very nervous. It is a huge responsibility.
“I took every day as it came. We were filming for 12 or 13 hours. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it. But we had a very supportive crew,” she recalls.
On the backdrop of the story, she shares: “Manners really mattered at the time. It was a time for social change. Jenny is this very nice middle-class girl from England. And she is walking into the poorer parts, in East London, after the mire of being bombed and the conditions everyone lived in.
“That, for Jenny, was a shock – especially having to do medical things going into a filthy tenement.”
Raine says the series is anchored by the “many eccentric characters who are all well-defined”.
Given the rave reviews, the actress says: “You get these incredibly moving and gritty storylines that cut through the edge of darkness. While it focuses on serious issues, it isn’t patronising.”
Raine let slip that her character has a romantic past that is alluded to and that, in a way, influences the decisions she makes.
I guess that makes this series pregnant with many possibilities – one of which is it being a hit with viewers.
• Call the Midwife will air on BBC Entertainment (DStv channel 120) on Sunday, February 17 at 9pm.