There’s a bit of light-hearted banter on the Call The Midwife set as the three senior Sisters of the drama’s Anglican order of nuns film the special Christmas episode.
“Do we Sisters like each other?” asks Judy Parfitt, who plays Sister Monica Joan. “Absolutely not. We can’t stand each other!”
“Oh, we have a terrible relationship – we hate each other,” pipes up Pam Ferris, trying but failing to keep up the strict Sister Evangelina-like expression on her face and breaking instead into a broad smile.
“I’m joking, of course. We get on really, really well. Knowing each other as well as we do now, we can tell when one of us is having a bad day and act accordingly. There’s a true sense of caring.”
“We’re very supportive of each other – rather like ordinary sisters are in real life,” adds Jenny Agutter who plays nun-in-charge, Sister Julienne.
“The fact that our characters are completely different helps. That’s not to say we don’t drive each other mad at times. We can’t hear each other when we’re wearing our wimples, for instance. We’re constantly repeating ‘What? What? What?’ That gets irritating but then the wimples are irritating in themselves – you get very hot. All in all, though, we do have a wonderful time together.”
No sibling rivalry, then? “Such as ‘She’s got more lines than I have?’,” asks Judy. “Not at all. As Jenny says, we support each other. We obviously talk much more than real nuns do – between ourselves and with the younger members of cast, too. We are a very diverse group of women – different ages, backgrounds, training and experience.
“Because most of us have been working together for three years now, we’ve got to know each other very well. You don’t get that kind of closeness when you work with people for a limited time. As we are a female-heavy cast, the conversation reflects this. We’re more likely to swap recipes than talk sport!”
So what’s happened at Nonnatus House since we were last there in March?
“Well, it’s the first Christmas in the new Nonnatus House but Sister Julienne is reminded of the Christmas before and the bomb left from the war, which exploded,” explains Jenny.
“Some of the Christmas things that had been packed away emerge broken. But, despite some very sad situations this year – including the plight of two unmarried mothers-to-be and also a couple on the borderline of survival – there is a great deal of hope for the future at Christmas.
“You see a very nice relationship growing between Sister Julienne and midwife Cynthia Miller, who is going through significant changes in her life.
“It all sets up a great deal for the coming series – it’s the very end of the Fifties, a new era and the world is changing fast,” Jenny adds. “The extraordinary thing for me about this time was the way people were able to resolve issues themselves as opposed to expecting someone else to take care of them. It’s a time when people are still grateful for the National Health Service and for all the things they have post-war.”
Pam nods but clearly has another point to make. “I feel the main focus of the Christmas episode is on those who were excluded from society back then – even at Christmas time. I hope we are more broadminded and compassionate today. I’m always amazed at how much things have changed in living memory. It’s good to remember how far we’ve come and not take it for granted.”
Series five of Call the Midwife has been commissioned before series four has even started. What do the Sisters think about this? “We’re all a bit on edge when new scripts arrive,” says Jenny. “You’re constantly thinking, ‘Where’s it going to go next?’ But writer Heidi Thomas unearths some incredible stories and real-life issues through meticulous research, and so long as she can carry on doing this, it can go on and on.
“I think many people thought Call The Midwife might end when Jessica Raine, who played Jenny Lee, left at the end of the last series but I believe Heidi used up most of the stories and happenings in the real Jennifer’s three books in the first series.
“I tell the young people on set to make the most of the show’s success because it doesn’t happen to most people in this business,” adds Judy. “I think the success is down to the scripts, and the fantastic casting. Also, the period detail is wonderful and there’s no swearing and no sex, although we do of course see the results of that. And no matter how many times you see a baby being born, it’s always a miracle. That never changes.”
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