The moving story behind Call The Midwife – brought to life for the screen as the original author Jennifer Worth’s health began to fail – is told in a touching new book by the show's writer
22:26 GMT, 19 October 2012
Fresh from writing Cranford, Heidi Thomas was offered the chance to adapt Call The Midwife, Jennifer Worth’s memoir about a group of midwives working with nuns in poverty-stricken Poplar, in the East End of London, in the 1950s. The book’s central character, Jenny Lee, was based on Jennifer herself. This is Heidi’s diary…
I have sealed my fate. I have said ‘Yes’ to turning Call The Midwife into a television series. I was so emotionally knocked out by my first reading of Jennifer Worth’s book that I emailed the Executive Producer, Pippa Harris, in the middle of the night, accepting the commission.
Waking this morning, I wonder if I’ve jumped the gun. Compelling though it is to read, Call The Midwife is an odd sort of hybrid; half-novel, half-memoir.
The characters are delightful, but some are more fully developed than others, and the East End women speak in a peculiar phonetic dialect of Jennifer’s devising.
Jessica Raine as Jenny Lee on the emotional and well-loved TV show Call The Midwife
Meanwhile the stories – key to any successful adaptation – are a potentially unfilmable pastiche of obstetrics and social history, with a dash of religion thrown into the mix.
And yet, and yet… I suddenly feel fiercely protective of Jennifer’s work – this magical web of words a woman I’ve never met wove at her desk, many moons after her retirement from midwifery.
I pick up the book again, determined to play my part in getting these stories out to the wider world, where – if I do my job properly – they will move other women to laughter, and to tears.
I go up to London to meet Jennifer and her husband Philip for lunch with Pippa. I feel desperately nervous, change my dress three times and miss my train.
This encounter feels like a cross between meeting a new headmistress and a blind date that might last several years. Getting a TV show as far as the screen can take a very long time and it’s vital that we get along. We do get along. I think. But the acoustics in the restaurant are deplorable, and we struggle to converse above the rattle of china and glass.
I drive through the snow to Hemel Hempstead, where Jennifer welcomes me with a log fire and a delicious home-cooked lunch. I am brimming with questions, but proceedings are formal, and we are on the gooseberry crumble before I feel I can put her on the spot.
Jennifer Worth as a midwife in the 50s
Oddly, the thing that breaks the ice is religion. I mention that my uncle is an Anglican priest and Jennifer seems to like this; Christianity and spirituality are very important themes in her book.
I am now ready to start work on the scripts, and Jennifer and I convene again, this time in her study in Hemel Hempstead. This is where she wrote Call The Midwife, by hand, but there are no books or papers in it, or even a desk – just a plain table, by the window.
It is elegant and somehow Spartan, like Jennifer herself. Some days ago I asked Jennifer if she could give me a few more details about life in the East End in the 1950s; she hands me a dozen sheets of white foolscap covered in leggy sloping writing. It is merely a series of lists – but what lists! Children’s games, church hall dances, Scout parades, the scratch of nylons, the taste of Babycham.
With Pippa’s guidance, I have polished my first completed script, and Jennifer has now read it. Instead of giving me her observations over the telephone, or setting them down in a letter, she has written them all over the script and sent it back forthwith.
But the interesting thing is that – as she worked her way through the episode –she clearly gets to grips with the way a script is structured, and the comments peter out well before the closing page. Jennifer closes her covering note with the words, ‘If you carry on like this you are going to be up for another Bafta.’ And I heave a sigh of relief.
Jennifer called Pippa, a few weeks ago, to say she had found the perfect actress to play Chummy. This is a part we always told her might prove difficult to cast. ‘I just saw her in a situation comedy,’ said Jennifer who never watched much telly.
‘I doubt you’ll have heard of her, but her name’s Miranda Hart, she’s six foot two and she falls over splendidly. I think she’d be quite marvellous.’ Pippa had to explain that Miranda is in fact a massive star and probably inundated with such offers. Jennifer told Pippa not to be ‘so feeble’ and the books and script are sent to Miranda. Today, Miranda’s agent has emailed to say she loves the character and would like to meet.
Cynthia, Jenny Lee, and Trixie Franklin on the hit TV show
With filming due to start in three months’ time, we are driving around what remains of Poplar with the production team, seeking potential locations and taking photographs.
Thanks to the massive slum clearances in the 1960s, most of the places mentioned in the book must be rebuilt elsewhere. Jennifer has been incredibly excited about this, as she is longing to see the world of her youth re-imagined for the screen, and she was supposed to accompany us today.
However, last night we received an email from Philip, saying that Jennifer has been suffering from terrible backache, and won’t be able to sit in the car. He mentioned that she also has an upset tummy, and says he’s going to take her to the doctor.
The team have a fascinating day piecing together the remnants of Poplar. We are in high spirits, but I miss Jennifer, the way one misses a friend who’s poorly on the day of the school trip.
In the middle of a flurry of emails about Call The Midwife, I see something that makes my heart stop. It is a simple subject heading: ‘Jennifer: Sad news.’ I feel sick even as I open it – we have heard nothing from Jennifer or Philip since that Poplar jaunt.
Pippa writes that Jennifer has just telephoned to announce she has been diagnosed with cancer of the oesophagus, which has already spread to her bones. It is terminal, and she has chosen to return home to be cared for by her family. She wishes to receive only palliative care.
Fresh from writing Cranford, Heidi Thomas was offered the chance to adapt Call The Midwife
Pippa asked if it would be all right to tell me, to which Jennifer replied with characteristic crispness, ‘Absolutely. There is no point in being secretive about these things.’ I look at the completed scripts for Episodes One and Two – the first with crossed-out notes in Jennifer’s spidery hand, then the second, with practically none. And I can’t decipher a single word, for I am blind with tears.
I speak to Jennifer for the first time since we heard the news. Her voice is strong, which pleases me, and I find myself suddenly savouring the way she can’t quite say her ‘R’s. In life, small details often tell us giant truths, and it is at this moment that I realise I love her.
I don’t say anything. Instead, I tentatively suggest that Jennifer might like to visit us on set in June if she is feeling up to it. She simply says, ‘We’ll see.’ She doesn’t elaborate and I don’t ask her to. Not for the first time in our friendship I have to accept that she knows more than I do.
Jennifer emailed Pippa today, making plans for the altered way ahead. There is a shining simplicity and grace to her prose; she states that she is at peace with her diagnosis and that she considers it a case of ‘Thy will be done’.
In the email, Jennifer sets out with meticulous politeness her wishes for the series. She specifically states she wants consultant midwife Terri Coates, her technical adviser on the books, to be her ‘eyes and ears’ on set. We start filming in the middle of June. It is impossible to tell from the email how long Jennifer imagines she might live.
Jennifer is weakening rapidly. It is a glorious, bright blue morning, but I drive to Hemel Hempstead with a heavy heart. I meet Pippa outside, as arranged, and all we can think of to say is, ‘This is awful…’ Jennifer’s weight loss is shocking; she lies narrow as a knife in a bed no wider than a child’s.
Looked after by hospice nurses and her family, Jennifer is mercifully in no pain, and talk of the show seems to give her a boost. To Philip’s alarm she gets out of bed – with a sad new accompaniment of a walking stick – to fetch a photograph album we have never seen before. It has recently been sent to her by a fellow midwife, and contains page after page of snapshots from her East End days. She turns the pages with alacrity, fresh memories bubbling to the surface.
Chummy lets her hair down
I spend a short time alone with Jennifer towards the end of the visit. She is depleted now, and lying down again. I fetch her some elderflower cordial, then sit by her bed and we hold hands. This is a first, as Jennifer has never been a touchy-feely sort of person. ‘I have to say,’ she says after a silence, ‘this has all been a rather interesting experience.’ I ask her if she means the television series or her illness. ‘Both,’ she says. ‘And death will be very interesting indeed.’
It is a terrible thing to close the door on someone you will never see again. I leave through the dazzling forget-me-not filled garden (I have never seen so many forget-me-nots) and go out through the side gate. I sit in my car and cry for a bit, before acknowledging that Jennifer would consider this impractical. I drive home and get on with my work.
I am actually working on a script when the telephone rings. It is Philip and, as soon as I hear his voice, my stomach lurches. There is only one reason he would call me now. So he doesn’t have to tell me she has gone, I just say, ‘When’ and he says, ‘Yesterday.’
The end of the shoot is almost in sight. I am on set watching filming at St Joseph’s, a former seminary in Mill Hill. A scene between Jenny and Jimmy is underway in the bike shed. She is supposed to be telling him she doesn’t love him, but one of the bicycles keeps falling over, and we’ve all got the giggles.
Between takes, I wander off into the grounds to pick a few blackberries. There’s a frail wild rose, almost spent, growing over a bit of broken fence. I am suddenly reminded there is a rose created in honour of the Royal College of Midwives, called ‘Breath of Life’. It’s an apricot-coloured climber, and I think how nice it would be if Pippa and I planted one here, in memory of Jennifer, who brought us to this place.
The first episode of Call The Midwife went out last night – at 8pm. We had all been deeply worried when we heard about the time slot, and I’m convinced people will have turned off in their droves. We have shots of babies’ heads emerging, syphilis, a haemorrhage and a rather cheerful enema.
It’s hardly pre-watershed fare – and we’ve already been told that men won’t watch it, young women won’t watch it and pregnant women won’t watch it. Who on earth will watch it
I have decided I don’t want to know the viewing figures, and busy myself making a Bakewell tart. The landline and mobile have been pinging for an hour when I decide to check my messages. Over 8 million – bigger than anything for years. But not big enough because all the viewers in the world can’t bridge the gulf between this moment and the friend I want to phone.