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'Call the Midwife' costumes lift and separate

Published April 26, 2013 3:10 pm

TV • And the nuns' wimples make the actors who play them feel rather deaf.
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The stars of the British import "Call the Midwife" got some unexpected help playing 1950s nuns and midwives — it came from their costumes.

"I think it makes you sit up straight because you have these wonderful bodysuits," said Helen George (Trixie). "And they kind of push you and prod you in ways that. …"

"Lift and separate," interjected Jessica Raine (Jenny).

"Yup. And point," George added. "You're like Madonna walking around."

"And your breasts are completely unrecognizable," Raine said.

"Call the Midwife," currently in the midst of its second season on PBS, is based on the memoirs of real-life midwife Jennifer Worth — the character Raine portrays. It's set in London's poor, working-class East End, where young midwives like Jenny and Trixie are the only health-care providers pregnant women have.

The midwives operate under the auspices of the Catholic Church-owned Nonnatus House, where Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) rules the roost and nuns like the blunt Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) work tirelessly.

The nuns wear habits, not the severe outfits assigned to the midwives. And Sister Evangelina "is not interested in lifting and separating," Ferris said with a smile.

She's somewhat ambivalent about the costume she wears in "Call the Midwife," which includes a habit (robe) and a wimple that covers the head, neck and sides of the face.

"Love the habit, hate the wimple," she said.

The wimple is "like a harness, and it makes you deaf," Ferris said. "You hear what's behind better than you hear what's in front."

Which can be a problem when the director is talking to her face-to-face "but, actually, you're hearing the crew behind you talking," she said. "And I often wish that I could take them off."

Wearing the wimple has given Ferris a certain insight into nuns.

"I think that nuns have that distracted, angelic look because they can't quite hear what's going on," she said.

Several of the nuns upon whom the series is based are still hard at work in the city of Birmingham.

"They're no longer midwives or nurses," said screenwriter Heidi Thomas. "They work in reconciliation within a multicultural community. One of them is a reflexologist. I'm telling you, those nuns kick ass."

They no longer wear habits, but they provided one to the show so the costumes could match the originals.

'I would love to think that when I'm in my 70s, as the sisters are now, that I would still be devoting myself to my career, the thing that I have chosen, the thing that I believe in," Thomas said. "And of course, they have the added privilege of doing good in the world and helping other people while they do it. I take my hat off to them."

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the nuns are fans of "Call the Midwife."

"It's appointment to view in the convent every Sunday night," Thomas said. "They sit down. They have a plate of custard creams and a pot of tea. They're real supporters of the show."


"Call the Midwife"

The British series airs Sundays at 7 p.m. on PBS/Channel 7, with repeats Sunday at 11 p.m.