This writer has waxed lyrical about Call The Midwife before and for good reason. Because, based on the bestselling memoirs of real-life nurse and midwife Jennifer Worth, the critically acclaimed TV series shows viewers what life was really like for women of the East End back in the 1950s. By which we mean, of course, the work they did, the friends they made, the lives they led, and the myriad issues they faced.
As the BBC drama celebrates its 10th anniversary, Stylist sits down with the talented Leonie Elliott, aka Nurse Lucille Anderson, to discuss the realities of working during a pandemic, the show’s outstanding feminist credentials, and what to expect from her character during Call The Midwife’s tenth season.
Here’s what she had to say.
Congratulations on Call The Midwife turning 10! You came to the show a little later on; what was your initial impression of it?
I had watched a few episodes, but I decided not to continue watching when I got the part. I wanted to meet the characters in real time. It was a process I felt necessary for my character, because, for Lucille, everything is new; the country is new, the place of work is new, everything. So I just wanted to react honestly and truthfully in that moment.
There’s a bit of a divide in how people view the show; some say it’s quietly feminist, others dismiss it as a cosy show about nuns and babies. Why do you think this is?
I think the people that think it’s cosy haven’t watched it, because most people that watch Call The Midwife know that it’s quietly feminist, and progressive. They know that it doesn’t shy away from painful or difficult issues. And I’m not sure people would say that [it’s cosy] if it wasn’t an all-female cast.
I think it all comes down to our writer and creator Heidi Thomas. She has this incredible ability to make us laugh and cry, all in one episode. And she tells such brilliant stories with good humour and integrity. Also, it was said once that she will never sugar the pill or sacrifice story for sentiment. And that to me is the secret to the long-term success of Call The Midwife.
What is it like working with so many women, both in front of and behind the camera?
It’s really inspiring, and I’m always very well aware that this is a special and a unique experience to work with so many talented and incredible women. I hope that, you know, I will be able to work in a similar environment at other points in my career. I’ve learned so much. But I know that this is very unique, and doesn’t happen in the industry often, but it’s really inspiring to work with incredible women who are so talented.
Do you think this is part of the reason that so many people have stayed with the show over the years?
Partly, but I think we stay because of the storytelling. Heidi constantly has new ideas. And she is always bringing the story forward. And it helps that we move a year forward in time each season, so it’s never stale or stagnant; she moves the characters on. It’s always exciting, and it always feels fresh, and it always feels new.
What do you think Lucille brings to the series?
Lucille brings a completely different perspective to the show. She’s from a Caribbean island – a very small island, actually – and she’s now in a city in England. So she brings a completely different perspective, and culture, and with that comes her own set of values and morals. Her own taste in music and fashion. And I think it’s so interesting to see how she marries the two cultures – interesting and important. Because it’s important for shows to reflect our society.
We live in such a diverse society, so I think we have a duty to make the invisible visible so to speak. And there is great power in seeing yourself represented on stage and screen.
How do you think Lucille has changed over the past few years?
Lucille has changed a lot. She started off with such traditionalist ideals and values, and was really quite conservative, but the influence of Trixie (Helen George), Valerie (Jennifer Kirby), and London culture has ultimately changed some of her attitudes.
Also, it’s 1966,1967 now, so society’s attitude towards women and their reproductive rights has changed. And this, too, has had an impact on the way that Lucille views the world.
And a lot of people have been campaigning for Lucille and Cyril to get married. What would you say to these viewers?
Theirs does reflect the relationships that blossomed at that time, and I know my grandparents can very much relate to that idea of courting and having a friendship beforehand. And I mean, everyone loves love. I love love, and I’m sure Lucille does, too. So, I would say it’s a wonderful milestone, if that’s what you want in your life… but I don’t think that should be the ultimate thing that women strive for.
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What can we expect from Lucille this season?
This season sees Lucille really settling into the community. You know, this is my fourth season on the show, and I believe it’s Lucille’s seventh year in England, and she’s really immersed herself now in London culture, and the swinging 60s.
As mentioned, her romantic relationship with Cyril Robertson (Zephryn Taitte) develops significantly this season. And, when Lucille sees the predicaments that women are finding themselves in, she is forced to confront many of her traditionalist views, too.
There is a storyline about the NHS and private healthcare this season. What do you hope people will take from this?
I suppose I just hope that it underlines how important the NHS is, and that we’re so lucky to have it. There are so many countries that don’t, so I think, ultimately, we have to be grateful.
Was it very different filming the show during Covid-19?
It was 100% different. We were socially distanced all the time, and we always had masks on, so you sort of forget what people look like. And also this season, due to Covid, we filmed our summer scenes in the winter. It was so cold you could see our breath, so in order to get our breath the same temperature as the air outside, they made us suck on ice cubes before filming our scenes.
And how have you found the past year, away from the Call The Midwife set?
I think the pandemic has been challenging, in a number of ways. But it’s also been offered everyone a time for reflection, particularly on the power of communication and social interaction. I think probably, as, as a human race, we’ve all realised that we’re all in this together. And I’m pleased that we’re starting to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
Finally, what are your hopes for the future – for you and Lucille?
My hopes for the future, career wise, are to continue telling stories and telling stories that champion Black women in all of their glory; the good, bad, ugly. For Lucille, I hope that she can be better every day, and continue her journey to self-awareness and self-acceptance, and just keep falling in love with life.
You can watch Call The Midwife 2021 on BBC One each Sunday evening at 8pm.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.