Helen George knows all about the perils of childbirth from playing Trixie in Call The Midwife. But nothing, she tells Event, prepared her for the life-and-death drama that brought her own baby (with the Midwife vicar!) into the world
‘If you are pregnant, our show is scary,’ admits Helen George, who plays the sparky Trixie in the hugely popular nursing drama Call The Midwife. She has just given birth for the first time – to a daughter named Wren Ivy – and says fellow expectant mothers told her they loved the show but were avoiding it until their babies arrived. ‘Lots of my pregnant friends said, “I’m not going to watch for now – it’s just a bit much, isn’t it?”’
Helen George knows all about the perils of childbirth from playing Trixie in Call The Midwife. But nothing prepared her for the drama that brought her own baby into the world
Call The Midwife continues to draw almost ten million viewers for each episode – even after the departure of stars such as Jessica Raine and Miranda Hart – because it manages to be heart-warming and funny, but also deeply moving, as we watch the nursing sisters deal with the perils of childbirth in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the early Sixties.
‘Some really horrible issues are tackled, there’s no getting out of that,’ says George. ‘There’s stillbirth. There’s death. Some of the stuff we talk about is horrendous. But the programme is also so lovely. There’s a warm spirit that you don’t get in many other TV shows. In a world of computer games, terrorism and drugs, it’s nice to have that sort of warmth.’
George is proud of the impact Call The Midwife has had on the profession
But it’s a real tear-jerker too, isn’t it? ‘Yes. But there’s something very therapeutic about crying. It’s there for a reason.’
The Christmas special features a scene in which Trixie battles through snow to a caravan, where a little girl is delivered, apparently dead. How on earth did it feel to shoot that, knowing she had her own baby on the way?
‘It challenges you. There’s a different thought process when I’m acting. It’s not personal to me, but you do have a moment when you walk away at the end of a scene and think, “That’s dreadful.”’
Helen George with partner Jack Ashton and their daughter, Wren Ivy
Helen George with Jack Ashton as Rev Tom Hereward in the show
George (centre) as Trixie in Call The Midwife with co-stars Charlotte Richie and Laura Main
Wren Ivy’s father is her Call The Midwife co-star Jack Ashton, who plays the Rev Tom Hereward. The pair got together 18 months ago in South Africa while filming last year’s Christmas special. Wren Ivy arrived in September, but the birth was far from easy. George suffered a medical emergency that could have come from one of the show’s scripts. ‘My baby was delivered three weeks early because I developed a liver condition called ICP [intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy]. The side-effects are mainly a really strong sense of itching. I was scratching myself so much I had black bruises all over my body and I would lie on the carpet and go like this down the corridor [she mimes rubbing her back against the carpet to scratch]. You even get a sense of itching in your eyes and your ears. It’s awful. It can drive women absolutely crazy and to suicide in some cases. It’s a horrific illness.’
ICP affects 5,500 women a year in Britain. ‘I knew the signs because the condition runs in our family, but very few women know anything about it, even mothers who’ve had symptoms. And it can put the baby’s life at risk. It’s one of those illnesses that’s just skated over and not really discussed, and that’s so upsetting – there’s a higher risk of stillbirth and it can lead to a very dangerous childbirth for the mother.’
George looks as though she could be her own character’s granddaughter when we meet in north London to talk. She is wearing jeans, a floral blouse and a long black coat; her hair is down and loose instead of Trixie’s blonde beehive. She’s less uptight than Trixie – an alcoholic who struggles to cope with the shifting moral codes of the time – and her accent is less clipped, more relaxed.
George, 33, was born in Birmingham. She studied ballet, went on to the Royal Academy of Music and became a backing singer for Elton John
‘That’s good!’ she says. ‘I’ve had people say, “Your voice as Trixie really grates with me!” But it has to sit in the Fifties and Sixties.’
Is there anything of Trixie in her? ‘She’s a strong girl but quite vulnerable. We have that in common.’
When describing her problematic pregnancy, George sounds more like the expert midwife Trixie. ‘It’s a condition of the liver,’ she says. ‘The bile acids can actually pass into the baby through the placenta and have devastating effects.’ She sought help from the charity ICP Support and was advised to get blood tests, fast. ‘Within two days I was delivering the baby. It’s that quick. I was worried but I knew I was in safe hands. The team at Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital were amazing.’
How was the birth? ‘It was a wonderful experience and she was born very safely. It was a weird experience because it sort of felt like work, but not really. I felt like I was on the wrong side of things.’
The actors on Call The Midwife are given training on how to deliver and care for babies, but she still felt as unprepared as any other new mother. ‘You think, “How are we allowed to go home with this baby? Where are the parents?” I’m still in the first few weeks, and it’s overwhelming. So many of my friends have said the first year is just about surviving. I didn’t really understand. Now I do. Just getting out of the house is a military operation, and the night feeds…’ George suddenly sounds tired. ‘I’m really bad at napping. Everyone says to sleep in the day when the baby does, but how do you carry on with life if you do that?’
Is Jack doing his share of the work? ‘I’m really lucky. He’s a very good father.’ But when I ask about their relationship she is shy. ‘We’re two people who fell in love and had a baby. I mean that’s pretty much it. It’s very normal.’
Rumours of an engagement have been denied in the past and she isn’t wearing a ring. ‘Look, it’s who you meet. I’m sure most of the nation meet people at work. It’s who you hang around with. If I was a lawyer I’d probably be having babies with a lawyer. It’s how it happens.’
George, 33, was born in Birmingham, the daughter of a professor and a social worker. She studied ballet, went on to the Royal Academy of Music and later became a backing singer for Elton John. Hotel Babylon was her first big television part in 2006, and it was there she met actor Oliver Boot. They married in 2012 – shortly before she joined Call The Midwife – but separated after three years. She insists it was amicable and nothing to do with her appearance on 2015’s Strictly Come Dancing. ‘Strictly feels like so long ago,’ she says. ‘It was a really fun time. I watch back my training videos with Aljaz, all the dances, and it makes me very nostalgic. You don’t really realise what you’re doing until you’re out of it. At the time you’re so tired, you’re like, “Yes, I’m doing a waltz, just make me do it and put me in a dress.” But then you look back and think, “That was amazing.”’
George was eliminated just before the semi-finals and responded to the idea that the show was fixed by saying: ‘It’s a dance show and a television show, so there has to be drama and it has to be somewhat controlled for it to fit the format. I don’t know what happened and I wasn’t privy to it.’
Did she keep dancing?
‘No. It’s tough and you overdose on it. Then you think, “That’s me done for my whole lifetime. I don’t ever need to do it again.”’
Real life and drama became intertwined in 2016 when her character, Trixie, broke off an engagement to the Rev Tom Hereward – but the two actors then began seeing each other
She returned to Call The Midwife, which is based on the memoirs of real-life East End nurse Jennifer Worth. Each series moves on a year, with the seventh season – due to start next month – set in 1963.
Real life and drama became intertwined in 2016 when her character, Trixie, broke off an engagement to the Rev Tom Hereward – but the two actors then began seeing each other. Is it easier to work out who looks after the baby when both parents are on the same show? ‘We are out of filming at the moment, but I’m sure it will be. The whole cast are mates, so there’s an easy feeling to it all.’
Would she allow Wren Ivy to be one of the babies who stand in for newborns on the show? ‘It would be weird if I was delivering my own baby,’ she says. ‘And if my mates did it, that would be really hard for them, because they’d have the added pressure that it’s my baby. So I’ve always said it would be a bad idea. But also, she’s too big now. I wouldn’t mind her being in the background of one of those lovely community centre shots that we do.’
George is proud of the impact Call The Midwife has had on the profession. ‘There were definitely more young people – women and men – signing up for the midwifery courses in this country. But now they all want to leave because it’s so horrible to work in the NHS.’
HELEN’S CHRISTMAS CRACKERS
What is your earliest Christmas memory?
Going downstairs and seeing a BMX bike by the Christmas tree and I was so excited. It was five o’clock in the morning and I ran upstairs and said to my sister, ‘We’ve got BMX bikes!’ And she said, ‘Oh my god you’ve ruined the surprise for me.’ But I had this bright orange BMX.
What will Christmas be like this year?
Nappies everywhere. Trying to eat Christmas dinner with one hand and mastering that skill. Yeah just family stuff and eating lots of nice food. We’ll be at my parents’ house in the Midlands.
Best present ever? Worst?
The BMX was pretty good. You can’t ever say a worst present because you’re going to really upset someone, though Secret Santa is always awful. I think last year in the Secret Santa with some friends I got a washing-up brush with a face on it. It’s funny. I do still use it actually, it’s a really good washing-up brush.
Any Christmas family traditions?
We still have stockings and my mum still puts stocking-fillers in them. And the sack with presents in for me. And we always open our presents in the morning. We’re not one of those weird families – sorry every one of those weird families – that open their presents after lunch, which is just odd. I suppose you have to wait until the Queen’s spoken. Anyway, we don’t do that.
Do you go to church?
Favourite Christmas tipple?
All of them! Bailey’s. I love Bailey’s.
Best Christmas song?
I like Chorus of the Bells from Home Alone. I think it’s really magical.
And Christmas movie?
Santa Claus The Movie, with Dudley Moore and John Lithgow. It’s an Eighties classic and it’s amazing. I watch it every Christmas.
Favourite Christmas TV show?
Call The Midwife. Obviously.
What did you play In your school nativity?
The Angel Gabriel. It’s because I was blonde, I suppose. Stick the blonde in the wings. Every little girl wants to be Mary. I think I was a Christmas donkey once as well. In the Call The Midwife Christmas special I’m half of the panto cow.
She has no intention of quitting the show, which is scheduled to run for at least two more seasons, and says becoming a mother has helped her appreciate it in a whole new way. ‘I’ve never really understood Call The Midwife as much as I do now that I’ve got a baby. I’ve always loved the show and cried at the sad bits, but watching the deliveries as a parent is a completely different experience to watching it as a non-parent.’ After all that happened with Wren Ivy, she speaks from the heart. ‘You no longer have to imagine the things that could happen – it’s much more real.’
Could she be a midwife? ‘I asked myself that a while ago. No, I don’t think I’ve got the guts to do it. It’s the most amazing job – to have to deal with the mothers, babies, deaths, births, blood… everything. I’m too much of a wuss. They’re amazing women.’
‘Call The Midwife’ Christmas Special is at 7:40pm on Christmas Day, BBC1. The new series begins in January