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Call The Midwife: I have the strangest job

Terri Coates

Midwifery Advisor, Call The Midwife

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When I sat with a downright tatty manuscript and chose to read it rather than correct midwifery students’ assignments that morning, I had no idea where it would lead.

I didn’t think it would take long to skim through and dismiss. But Jennifer’s stories leapt off the page. I lost all track of time and nearly forgot to collect my children from school.

An article I had written for the Royal College of Midwives journal 12 months previously had struck a chord with newly-retired music teacher Jennifer Worth. She had read the article with interest, having worked as a midwife for only seven years in the late 50s and early 60s.

Jennifer said that she had always planned to write in her retirement and that my article provided the catalyst for her memoirs. The first book was Call The Midwife. I knew and worked with Jennifer for 13 years on the trilogy of her memoirs - I was her advisor and clinical editor.

'Courage: wish we could bottle it like gas and air' - watch the trailer

Sadly Jennifer died just before the stories were filmed for the BBC One series Call The Midwife but she had seen and approved early drafts of the scripts.

I feel that she would approve of the high standard of accuracy that we have achieved along with the series creator Heidi Thomas. During the long drawn-out process of turning the books into TV scripts for Call The Midwife, Jennifer asked if I could continue as the midwifery advisor on the show to provide medical and midwifery accuracy.

Now I probably have the strangest job that ever required a midwife.

Heidi's team of scriptwriters contact me at various points in the process of writing the clinical scenes and sometimes I suggest midwifery scenarios to fit the stories. I check that the medical conversations are appropriate.

For each of the scenes the sequence has to be accurate, or at least plausible. For example, a real ante natal examination of a pregnant woman may take 15 minutes, or in the case of the second (pushing) stage of labour, an hour or more.

The scenes portraying the birth or a clinic visit may only be a minute or two in an hour-long programme, so those moments have to look really convincing.

Trixie Franklin (Helen George) weighs a baby

I teach the actors a condensed version of the clinical techniques required to simulate the examination or procedure.

The action may only be required for a few seconds but the actors have to demonstrate enough of the clinical skill to convince the audience. I am always on the set when the clinical scenes are being filmed to help the actors and advise the director.

Heidi and the other series writers are very skilled at capturing these moments and I ensure that the examination or diagnosis is accurately portrayed.

I have also learned that, if for example, the actors need to put surgical gloves or a gown on I have to write that down in directions too or the costumes and props aren’t provided and the time required to put on the gown and gloves for example are not scheduled. All directions are written on the script. I now assume nothing!

So many medical dramas are spoilt when small details, such as a syringe used at the wrong angle are seen. The actors playing midwives and doctors have had to learn how to use the medical and midwifery equipment and pronounce medical terms.

I have taught the actors how to take blood pressure or listen to a baby’s heart beat through a pregnant abdomen using a Pinard (small trumpet shaped instrument) correctly using the (vintage) equipment.

When the professional aspects of the scene are right I feel that I’ve done my job well.

Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), Trixie Franklin (Helen George), Cynthia Miller (Bryony Hannah) and babies

I’m used to looking after mothers and their babies but the usually unpleasantly cold sets for Call The Midwife have been a challenge.

However, the area immediately around the baby is heated to a point that most of the crew find uncomfortable but I find reassuring. The babies are usually naked for their scenes and chill rapidly.

We are very grateful that the mothers come to the set and allow their babies to be used for the filming and they watch everything that goes on via a monitor.

For the birth sequences I hold the baby until the last moment before handing over to the actress. I always remain very close to the baby, just out of shot.

In reality this usually means contorted under a bed or kneeling in a puddle. So, rather like my other day job delivering real babies.

Terri Coates is a practising midwife, lecturer and author and is the midwifery advisor on Call The Midwife.

Series two of Call The Midwife continues on BBC One and BBC One HD at 8pm on Sundays. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

More on Call The Midwife
BBC TV blog: Call The Midwife: In search of a new home

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC. 


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