Escaping your own house for someone else’s in these times can be giddying. Imagine how actress Helen George felt, though, when she finally left her own four walls to pop to… Buckingham Palace.
Yes, really. ‘For the first house I could visit, outside my own, to be the Queen’s was really quite exciting,’ she says, putting it rather mildly.
The situation was quite surreal. Helen, best known for her role as Trixie Franklin in Call The Midwife, had been invited to the palace to sing as part of the VE Day 75th anniversary celebrations in May.
Tea with the Queen (who has been strictly self-isolating, with a ‘bubble’ of staff) was off the agenda, but filming for the BBC special, which involved a host of entertainers, still went ahead – to Helen’s astonishment and delight.
Helen George, 36, (pictured) who is best known for her role as Trixie Franklin in Call The Midwife, revealed how the drama has affected her life. Pictured: Helen as Trixie in series eight
The original idea had been to present an evening of entertainment from the Royal Albert Hall.
Instead, a number of the performers, from Strictly’s Anton du Beke to singer Beverley Knight and actor Shane Richie, gathered (while socially distancing) in the courtyard of Buckingham Palace. The event was unusual, but no less powerful for it.
‘It was very well controlled, and astonishing to think they could still film it,’ explains Helen. ‘There was a skeleton crew and performers were given hourly slots.
‘It was nerve-racking, but so emotive. It would’ve been anyway, but with everything that was happening with lockdown, it felt even more special. I felt really proud to be part of it.’
Not least because the song she sang was the iconic White Cliffs Of Dover, made famous by Dame Vera Lynn, who died a few weeks later.
‘It made it even more emotional,’ she admits. ‘Everything about this year has been pretty awful. I can’t wait for New Year’s Eve.’
Helen (pictured) should have been filming the tenth series of Call The Midwife, admitting there’s concern that the Christmas special hasn’t been filmed yet
Her soaring and incredibly sweet voice came as a surprise to those who know Helen only as an actress (albeit one who can also dance, and reached the quarter-finals of Strictly in 2015).
She actually trained as a singer and started her career in musical theatre. Trivia lovers will be delighted to hear that one of her early showbiz jobs was as a backing singer for Elton John, who could have offered tips for royal command performances.
So how did she get the plum VE Day gig? ‘I have no idea,’ she says, laughing.
‘I think they called the wrong person. I guess the BBC know me, and I did sing at the Queen’s birthday party a few years ago.’
Yes, she has met Her Majesty before. ‘Just to sort of bob about in front of her,’ she explains.
Any other royals? Yes, quite a list. She’s met the Duchess of Cornwall (‘who was wonderful’), Prince Charles (‘lovely’) and Sophie Wessex (‘very nice’). All of which marks her out as a national treasure in the making, surely.
At the moment Helen, 36, should have been filming the tenth series of Call The Midwife, but she has been at home playing a waiting game. She’s getting tetchy, though. Ongoing dramas can be rescheduled, but every year one of the highlights of the TV schedules is the Call The Midwife Christmas special. That it hasn’t yet been filmed is a concern. ‘There is a slight pressure, because Christmas isn’t going anywhere,’ she admits.
But Midwife fans – the programme pulls in up to ten million of them – will be cheered to discover the hit show is returning. Series one to eight, and the Christmas specials, are being put on BritBox.
For many the drama, which follows the fortunes of the midwives and nuns delivering babies in the East End of London in the 50s and 60s, will be a tonic. Watching the earliest episodes is oddly comforting.
Helen, who plays the only nurse to have appeared in every series, agrees that the show’s unique charm makes it ideal lockdown viewing.
‘I think it’s the sort of TV people want at the moment. It embraces what lockdown has become, highlighting that sense of community and warmth, but without it being a show about a pandemic.’
Helen and her partner actor Jack Ashton, met on the set of Call The Midwife and now have a daughter Wren Ivy. Pictured: Trixie with Jenny (left) and Cynthia in series one
The show has certainly changed her life. She met her partner, actor Jack Ashton (who played Rev Tom Hereward), on the set; their relationship kicked off during filming in South Africa for the 2016 Christmas Special. They now have a daughter, Wren Ivy, who was born in 2017.
The part of blonde bombshell Trixie was Helen’s first major acting role, and when she signed up she thought it would be for one series.
Instead, the show has become an institution. Almost a decade on, while the cast has seen many comings and goings, she remains in situ, lipstick very much intact. She has always been very grateful for her big break, having grown up in Birmingham in an unshowbizzy family.
Not even this show could prepare me for being a mum
Her mother was a social worker, her father a professor of political science. Her sister is a vet. ‘So no actors there, but my family were supportive. They were glad I had found my passion.’
She thought her future would lie in the theatre but landed an audition for a low-key new TV drama about midwives.
She knew little about it, although when her agent read her the names of her co-stars – industry legends like Jenny Agutter, Judy Parfitt, Pam Ferris and Miranda Hart – she remembers reeling.
‘I was terrified and excited in equal measure,’ she says.
‘It was hard for me because from the start Trixie was an overly confident character, the leader in any conversation, the driver. She had to come across as the most in-control character, even though, in reality, she was probably the least in control.’
Helen said the midwives get the most fantastic costumes, while the nuns are lucky if they get a different cardigan in every series. Pictured: Helen with Tom, played by Jack Ashton, who’s now her real-life partner
As she grew in confidence, so her role expanded. Glamorous and worldly, Trixie soon became the show’s siren, playing matchmaker to her friends and attracting no shortage of men herself – not least the Rev Tom who she became engaged to and the dapper dentist Christopher Dockerill.
Her complex backstory was revealed, including how her father’s post-traumatic stress from the First World War had led to problems with alcohol, which in turn fuelled Trixie’s own battle with the bottle.
And she was always the sexiest midwife who got to wear the most fabulous clothes, channelling Doris Day one week and Marilyn the next. Helen giggles about lucking out in the wardrobe department.
‘We midwives get the most fantastic costumes. The nuns get a different cardie every series – if they’re lucky.’
I thought they would sack me!
Helen remembers her first scene, which involved Trixie and her young colleagues Jenny (played by Jessica Raine) and Cynthia (Bryony Hannah) sitting around in the kitchen, discussing the manicure Trixie (pictured smoking) longed for, though it didn’t make the cut.
‘I’d done the scene for the audition too, so I thought I was prepared, but I had to light a cigarette while talking,’ she recalls.
‘Well, I just couldn’t do it. I was using matches and I kept snapping them. Bryony laughed about it later, telling me that all she could see was my hands shaking. And I was just thinking, “I can’t even light a fag properly – they are going to sack me!”’
Didn’t one of the older actresses step in? Was Pam Ferris on hand to show her how to light up?
‘Well, she wasn’t in the scene but I’m sure she would have done! From the start it was the more experienced actors who set the tone on set.
‘That’s what makes them so classy. They created a sense of community, and made sure it wasn’t them and us. They individually took me under their wing.’
It does sound a hoot on set, mostly. ‘There are days when you’re filming in the rain and you can’t remember your lines and you think, “I can’t wait to go home”, but mostly it’s a joy. It’s been a great deal of fun.’
There isn’t a divide between the nuns and the nurses either. They lunch together, although conversation can be tricky.
‘The problem is the nuns can’t hear through their wimples,’ she laughs. ‘No one has ever managed to solve that one.’
Over the years, the big names have come and gone. Jessica Raine bowed out, as did Miranda Hart (‘who was hilarious’). There were fears that once the show had exhausted the original material (it was based on the memoirs of former midwife Jennifer Worth), it would run out of steam.
‘We did lose people along the way, but the quality never faltered because we also gained people too. Miriam Margolyes came on board, and Harriet Walter.
‘What was amazing was this mix of huge names, but also that the cast included people straight from drama school who went on to other things too. It was a rite of passage.’
There has been a lot of learning about babies too, obviously. Task number one was learning to hold a baby while looking confident. Was she one of those young women who babysat a lot and could make it look effortless?
‘No, I was at the other end of the scale,’ she admits. ‘I hadn’t a clue how to hold them, which was terrifying – some of the babies are only a few weeks old.’
By the time motherhood beckoned in real life she was a safe pair of hands, or so she thought. She was pregnant while filming the seventh series of Midwife (it wasn’t in the storyline; and she credits copious winter capes with letting her keep her secret).
In pregnancy, Helen suffered from ICP, a liver disorder that causes a build-up of acid, and her baby daughter was delivered three weeks early.
Did her midwife role prepare her at all for real-life motherhood? ‘Not a bit,’ she says.
‘Nothing prepares you for all the feeding, the lack of sleep, the endless washing and sterilising.’ Nor did she look as glossy at home as she does on set.
‘On the show, a lot of people work hard to make me look that glamorous. Unfortunately they don’t live with me,’ she laughs.
It wasn’t in the game plan to end up with her co-star, but she’s sanguine about the fact that ‘when we meet people, it’s often at work’.
She had been married before to another actor, Oliver Boot. They too had met on set and were married from 2012 until 2015. She said at the time that she signed up to do Strictly as a sort of therapy following their split.
Is it a bonus to be with another actor? ‘It is what it is,’ she says.
Helen explained that her role as a midwife didn’t prepare her for real-life motherhood. Pictured: Helen as glamorous Trixie
‘I guess you understand each other’s lives, as much as anyone can. If Wren wants to go into this industry, at least we can guide her.’
It’s slightly easier now Jack has left the show (he bowed out after his on-screen wife died in 2018). People often wonder why Helen hasn’t flown the Midwife nest yet. She’s pragmatic about this.
The job is unusual in the industry in that it’s normally filmed over six months, which leaves her free to do other things. Strictly could be slotted in, for example, and she’s taken on theatre roles.
This win-win arrangement worked swimmingly until Wren came along, and it’s been tough to juggle since. Helen has missed key moments, such as Wren’s first steps, because she was away working.
‘Acting is a tough profession. If you get offered a job, you panic and take it because you think, “I might not work for another two years.” You end up saying yes to most things, but having a child makes you consider every decision, maybe make wiser ones.’
She is quite relentless, but such a mindset is necessary in this business, she says.
‘I am ambitious. I’ve always been quite driven and I’ve never apologised for that. I work hard and I’m pretty lost when I don’t work.
‘It was very hard when I first had Wren. When you’re on set you’re doing 16 hours a day, but we have got into more of a rhythm now.’
Things are returning to normal too. After we speak she’s going to collect Wren from nursery, which has just reopened. She’s now waiting for the call to say filming for Call The Midwife will resume.
Will there still be convincing stories to tell? When a long-running show is heading into its tenth series, there must be a fear that the storylines will dry up. Never, she says, when the programme is all about new beginnings, life and love.
‘One of the joys of this show is that so many viewers send in their own stories. We’ve had mothers and grandmothers sending their journals, all these amazing stories of what happened to them. There will never be a shortage of material.’
Call The Midwife is now available on BritBox. Visit britbox.co.uk for your 30-day free trial.