Born performers: The real stars of runaway hit Call The Midwife are the
newborn babies – and they’re already acting like prima donnas
Miranda Hart knew she was on no ordinary show when her co-star decided to wee on her. Her fellow actor may have been a week-old baby but the comedienne, who plays Call The Midwife’s hapless toff Chummy, was shocked. ‘She said the experience had put her off having children of her own,’ says the show’s executive producer Pippa Harris. ‘I’m not sure if she was joking.’
For many of the cast of the hit drama, it’s their first experience of working with babies. And they’ve discovered there are plenty of mishaps and tears when it comes to dealing with real tots.
For the rehearsal stages of the production, the actresses were given state-of-the-art prosthetic babies hired from a company specialising in props for hospital dramas, which are weighted just like the real thing and covered in a slightly slippery skin. The production took two of these ‘jelly’ babies – a small premature-looking one and a large one – and then had two specially commissioned, one of mixed race and one with interchangeable private parts so it could be either a boy or a girl, at a cost of 5,000 each.
Beautiful babies: Midwife Jenny (Jessica Raine) and a new arrival
Covered with red make-up and nappy
cream, they were used for most of the birthing scenes, including a
particularly graphic breech delivery Chummy had to get to grips with in
episode two. After a little sleight of camera a real baby was then
‘They’re so lifelike it’s disturbing,’ says producer Hugh Warren. ‘Because they feel like real babies every one holds them as if they are – even the tough old cameramen cradle them tenderly.’
The production has also depended on a small army of newborns to make the stories seem real. These young babies, around 20 of them in all, came courtesy of theatrical agents specialising in children, and many were recruited as word of mouth spread to expectant and new mothers around Mill Hill in north London, where the series was filmed.
Not surprisingly, using such tiny babies, sometimes less than a week old, was a fraught experience.
‘We might have a mother-to-be who had agreed we could film with her new baby, but then she would deliver a week too early meaning her baby would look too big by the time we filmed, or there were times we were left without one because they were born a week late,’ says Hugh.
‘For the first show, where a mother gives birth ten weeks prematurely, we needed a very small baby and a woman who was due to have one had agreed to be on the show. But when the day came she pulled out. I’ve never seen our assistant director, who was in charge that day, so stressed.’
When the babies did perform, their different personalities shone through. ‘There was one pair of twins we used in a few episodes because they were so easy-going and didn’t cry very much,’ says Hugh.
‘Some of the others were more difficult. Sometimes it was hard just to keep them awake – we would blow on their feet if they looked like they were dozing off during a scene.’
It may be stars like Miranda Hart (third from right) who have made the headlines, but the show also relied on a small army of babies
Over half the babies used were identical twins as they could both play the same child, making it easier to comply with the strict laws on filming with babies. They can be filmed for just 20 minutes at a time before having a 30-minute break. In reality the producers had no choice but to work around the babies, who were always accompanied by their mothers. 'If the baby was crying or had fallen asleep we’d shoot in another direction,’ says Pippa.
Overseeing the production was real-life midwife Terri Coates, who was instrumental in bringing Call The Midwife to the screen. In 1998 she wrote an article in the Midwives Journal appealing for someone to write an All Creatures Great & Small-type series about midwives, and was contacted by retired midwife Jennifer Worth, who said the piece had inspired her to write her memoirs. They became international bestsellers, and when the BBC came calling Jennifer asked Terri to join the show as an adviser.
But even though she has attended hundreds of births, she got as caught up in the fake deliveries as the rest of the cast and crew. ‘The whole set would get very emotional when we were filming a birth and you could see Terri had tears in her eyes,’ recalls Pippa. ‘I’d ask her, “Why are you crying when it’s not real – it’s not even a real baby,” and she said the moment birth fails to touch you, it’s time to give up being a midwife.’
Call The Midwife is on BBC1 on Sunday at 8pm.