Call The Midwife creator Heidi Thomas shares how the drama proved critics wrong
Heidi Thomas, the creator of the British period drama Call The Midwife has grave news to impart. There might have been no sixth series of her popular drama about London midwives in the 1960s.
"When they were filming the Christmas special in South Africa, the whole cast clubbed together, hired a catamaran and went out sailing," says Thomas. "Back in England, I got a Snapchat picture from my husband, Stephen McGann, who plays Doctor Turner."
Thomas, 54, who is also the award-winning writer of Cranford, continues that, "The photo was of the entire cast of Call The Midwife on a very small catamaran in shark-infested waters. I thought, 'One freak wave and we have no Christmas special and no series six either. It was a dark moment."
The success of the series came as something of a surprise to Thomas.
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"For a very long time before we started to film it, people told us nobody would watch it," she recalls.
"They used to say young women will be frightened by it, older women will be disgusted by it, men won't watch it at all, and I used to think, 'Well, nobody will watch this show'.
"But then the very first time it went out, we got eight million overnight viewers in the UK, and I think we were in a sort of shock.
"Our viewing figures have held steady now for six years. But it's not about the numbers, it's the passion that people feel for the show, and for the stories that we're telling."
Thomas adds that, "Our remit at Call The Midwife is to give a voice to people who have experienced great and beautiful and terrible things, and never had a voice before.
"We are somehow digging up lives that were silent, and we're shining a light on lives that were experienced – if not in darkness at the time, but that very quickly vanished into the mists of history afterwards."
Thomas reflects that Call The Midwife can be enjoyed on many different levels.
"If you just want to flop down ... and look at the frocks, listen to the lovely music and maybe have a glass of wine and indulge yourself in an escapist treat, you can do that."
Or, the writer continues, "You can dig a little bit deeper, looking at the social history, the prejudices that were involved, the difficulties people had before society became as it is today. You can even go down to the deepest level where we are telling stories about the human condition, and you can really engage with that – not just matters of society or medicine, but matters of human existence, life, death and birth.
"You can dig down as deeply as you want to, but we don't make you work that hard if you really just need to be cradled for an hour."
The historical aspect of the show also hits a chord with McGann, 54.
"All over the world, there is a new generation and you mustn't take for granted that everyone understands all the historical context," he says.
"Even though our programme is set in the recent past, it is quite surprising to us sometimes how the young respond.
"They say, 'I actually had no idea that this all took place. I didn't know that homosexuality was illegal or about the role of women or that women couldn't open a bank account in Britain in the early 60s.' The world was a very different place. And yet, it is not so long ago."
So, McGann says, "When you put it in historical context, you say, 'How did we get to here from there? Why did we make those choices? Were they good choices?' That's up to the audience to decide."
The fact that Call The Midwife moves on a year with every series also keeps it fresh.
Laura Main, 40, who portrays the former nun Shelagh Turner, says, "We don't repeat ourselves. That's one of the beauties of going forward a year with each series. You are presented with new challenges and it is all absolutely historically accurate and thoroughly researched.
"So 1962 will present new issues and that's why we've managed to keep going. It's the same show, but it's always regenerating."
Call The Midwife, TVNZ 1, Friday.
- TV Guide