Call the Midwife Stars on Delivering Drama, History, and Female Empowerment

The baby-centric British show returns to American television on March 31

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BBC / Neal Street Productions via PBS

(l-r) Helen George as Trixie, Bryony Hannah as Cynthia and Jessica Raine as Jenny, on 'Call the Midwife'

Fans of the popular BBC drama Call the Midwife know them as the Jenny, Trixie, and Cynthia—the dedicated midwives who bring safe child-birthing to the rough streets of London‘s East End in the 1950s. But when the actresses who play characters —Jessica Raine, Helen George and Bryony Hannah, respectively—sit down in a New York City hotel to discuss the show, returning to PBS for a second season starting Mar. 31, it’s decidedly 2013. And it’s clear that they think the show, though set more than half a century in the past, is more modern than much of the television fare that takes place today.

“It’s very interesting seeing a show where none of the women are defined by their relationships with a man. That is unbelievably rare on television,” says Raine. “The amount of scripts I read where there are two women in the show and it’s a mother and a wife, it makes me really angry.”

It’s an unusual distinction for the show: empowered women in a prefeminist world. (To wit: Raine was excited that her character gets—spoiler alert—to wear trousers in a second-season episode.) Yes, it has plenty of the frothy stuff common to television aimed at women: BAFTA-winning outfits, mysterious romantic pasts, scenes involving drinks that Raine describes as “lemonade-y foamy-uppy.” Much of each episode is devoted to the characters riding bikes on their way to deliver babies — lots of babies! — while wearing prim uniforms. But, the actresses point out, the show isn’t about that stuff. If you didn’t know they were talking about a television period drama, you might think you were at a Lean In Circle.

“The focus is the women and the work, the vocation, having a through-line with your life,” says Helen George. “It’s so nice to do a female-friendly show that isn’t about fighting over a man or whatever.”

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For American viewers unfamiliar with the Call the Midwife, the most obvious cultural reference point is Downton Abbey. While Midwife was the highest-rated new BBC drama in the network’s recorded history and the first season did well in the U.S., the show has not yet managed to grab America the way Downton has. But other than the fact that they’re both English period dramas, there’s not too much to link the shows—including the fact that, while both air on PBS in the States, they belong to rival networks on the other side of the pond. Downton’s deliciously soapy romantic plots and embrace of a more genteel time stands in opposition to the procedural-esque drama of Midwife and its gritty realism.

The real-life events that inspired the series—based on a best-selling memoir of the same name—puts the focus on women at work. Fathers, as George points out, were not allowed in delivery rooms at the time, as birth was something of a taboo. “Childbirth is so dangerous still,” she says, “and for a long time it’s been hidden.” So, while there are some central Midwife characters who are male, the gender imbalance is necessitated by fact.

For the cast, those numbers have benefits behind the scenes. “It’s a very female-heavy set in terms of the acting—not the crew, obviously, because they never are,” says Jessica Raine. The three young actresses—all in the early stages of their careers—find much to admire in the women who play the nuns with whom they work, including British stage and screen stalwarts like Pam Ferris and Jenny Agutter. “For most of us, it was our first big television job, so when we first started just seeing how they dealt with the set, and went through the rehearsals, was really instrumental in how we work now,” says Hannah. “It’s nice as well. I just moved into a new flat and Pam Ferris is so excited, giving me magazines about decorating.”

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And the role-model relationships don’t stop there, as the fans aren’t all women with baby experience. (None of the three actresses had much experience with babies before the show either; Bryony Hannah hopes her own midwife will treat her extra nicely because she plays one on TV.) Although the show has caught some flak in the U.K. for airing the facts of life during family-friendly primetime hours, Helen George says she’s heard that many of the show’s fans are tween girls and young teens, for whom the well-defined female characters are role models. “It’s sort of a responsibility,” she says.

One that, taken seriously, pays dividends—at least that’s what Jessica Raine thinks, attributing the show’s high ratings to public desire for good shows for and about women. If she’s right, the Call the Midwife crew has reason for high expectations as they head into the second season in the U.S. “Certainly the second season in England did really well. It climbed and climbed, to 11.4 million [viewers]. People have clearly been craving this,” she says. “For God’s sake, where have these shows been?”