As the eager young midwife Jenny Lee on BBC’s period drama Call the Midwife, Jessica Raine has done her share of swaddling infants, consoling women in labor, and riding bikes. When the show returned to PBS for a second season last week (the second episode airs tonight), we saw Jenny confronted by new challenges like domestic violence and abortion. What could be next? Vulture spoke to Raine about the series (which is based on Jennifer Worth’s memoir-trilogy), enemas, and baby poop.
What sort of experience did you have around babies before the show?
Like, zero experience. Nothing. I’d always felt quite awkward handling babies before I started filming Midwife. Because when they are not yours, you are scared they are going to break when you pick them up. But now I am completely confident with them. I had friends who felt like I did a few years ago, and they are like, “Oh my God, you are scooping up that baby,” and I’m like, “Yup.”
I’ve read that because the show needs so many babies, you use real-life infants volunteered by mothers. I imagine the babies can be unpredictable, especially with their diapers off.
Big time. There’s a lot of baby accidents. And there’s really, really strict rules with how long you can work with a newborn baby — some of them are only eight days old. They can work for about fifteen minutes at a time. And those minutes are precious because you have to get the shot. And if they decide to poo while the camera is rolling … that happened, maybe in the Christmas episode, where we had a very cramped delivery scene where the girl was in a tenement shed toilet on the landing of her building, and we had a tiny newborn baby. And the baby just decided that was the time to go to the bathroom. So there was just some mess on this poor actress’s leg and it just sort of slid down her leg while we were filming. I was very impressed with all of our professionalism; we all just kept going.
It seems there is a lot of talk of enemas. That seemed to be a very big part of the birthing process in the fifties.
Talk of what?
Enemas. The women are always like, “But I haven’t gotten my enema yet!” Every lady that’s about to give birth …
Yeah, I didn’t know this, I was completely unaware, but back in the day it was essential to have an enema before you gave birth and also to get shaved. So you’d go round, and you’d get the call the woman is in labor and because labor can take an awfully long time, they would give them an enema. And everyone hated it because it’s not a very pleasant experience, I imagine. And they don’t do that anymore, thank God.
And same thing with eclampsia. This is the second BBC show that’s made something of eclampsia. Downton Abbey obviously, it was a big storyline there.
Yeah, I watched the Christmas special of Downton and as soon as Sybil was in bed with swollen ankles and a headache, I was like, It’s eclampsia. [Laughs] From all the Call the Midwife stuff I’ve done, I felt like I had a heads up she was definitely a goner, there was no way you would pull through that at that time. I was surprised when she got that, but it was a great thing to be made aware of because I had never heard of that. And we know what the tell-tale signs are now.
The second season just premiered here. Was that character Molly with the abusive husband a real person from the books?
Yeah, it’s in there. And it’s horrible. It’s not a happy ending. The first episode is quite a downer, because we have Molly who is suffering domestic abuse and she never gets out of that. She is completely besotted with her husband, to the detriment of her kids. And that was totally in there. And I think Jennifer Worth, who wrote the memoirs, witnessed a lot of that in the East End. And no one knew what to do. There wasn’t the kind of help that there is now. And when a woman is so emotionally dependent, there’s not much you can do. But I think it is really well documented.
Jennifer Worth signed off on your casting. Did you get to spend any time with her before she died?
It is to my deepest regret that I never met her. She was very ill and she got very ill very quickly, and from what I hear, Heidi Thomas, who wrote the series and adapted it from the books, she was very close to Jennifer and they showed her a photograph of me and she just sort of saw the photo and nodded her head, and I think that’s the closest we got. And she passed away two weeks before we started shooting. And on the very first day of filming, on the first season, we had a minute silence for Jennifer Worth. I’m absolutely gutted I never met her. Because she sounded like quite a formidable woman and quite eccentric from what I hear, and very opinionated, and completely formed by her experiences of being a midwife at that time.
The Brits love their period drama. Why do you think that’s a genre that everyone appreciates?
I just think we are really good at it. I think there is something in our bones, where it’s exciting to us to magnify times that have been and really examine why things were that way, and it’s fun to play those things. Let’s be honest: It’s really fun to see the costumes and the hair and the set. It’s like a window into another world. I have no idea why we are so good at it, but I’m very pleased that we are.