I’ll never quite get over some of the incredible opportunities opened up to me as a blogger, and this week I found myself on the press day for an exciting Call The Midwife event in the heart of Kent, just a short drive from my home at the Historic Chatham Dockyard.
The family and I have visited the historic dockyards before, and I have previously gushed about how I fell in love with the place – it’s charm, it’s family friendly features and it’s oozing with Kent history. It’s an incredible place which has hidden gems around every corner, and walking through the cobbled roads and vintage brick buildings, it’s no surprise that the Dockyard has become a focal site for the British filming industry. It’s 400 year heritage remains in incredible condition as you wander through the site and buildings, making it the perfect backdrop for all sorts of period dramas, movies and of course, the national treasure that is Call The Midwife.
When the show launched in 2012, the external scenes of Tower Hamlets in the 1950’s were no longer around, having been demolished in following years to make way for exclusive flats and businesses. Location scouts scoured the country for an alternative backdrop, and eventually, they discovered the Historic Dockyard at Chatham, which had the variety of backdrops they were looking for, and over 400 years of history steeped in those bricks.
This week, the Call The Midwife tours at Chatham Dockyard have been relaunched with the support of Neal Street Productions and they have been reborn with a touch of the entertainment business sparkle that our nation’s favourite deserves.
The 90 minute tours can now be booked online through the Chatham Dockyard website, and include a walking tour through the exterior sets of the filming locations by your very own costumed midwife, some interior sneak peeks, and a brand new Call The Midwife props and memorabilia exhibition.
I was lucky enough to be one of the first people to experience the tour this week as part of the launch celebration, and along with other members of the Kent press and media members on the tour, we were blessed with a tour guide of dreams – the lovely Irene.
A huge show fan herself, Irene had us laughing and smiling the whole tour long, pointing out spots memorable scenes were filmed, and showing photos from the scenes to jog our memories along the way. Not that you super fans will need that!
Of course there is so much at Chatham Dockyard which has been magically featured in Call the Midwife – cleverly disguised by the talented people behind the show, they have stitched together scenes of the ships, both inside and out, created bleak midwinter in the middle of summer, created Southend pier on Chathams very own thunderbolt Pier and even transformed Commissioners house into a like for like version of the Grosvenor house hotel.
We strolled in the sunshine past the spot Trixie and Tom got engaged, ‘Chummys hill’ where that hilarious scene she literally bumped into the love of her life on her bicycle, the Police station, and the Admiral’s house, better known to you and I as ‘the London hospital’.
One of my favourite parts of the dockyard is included in the tour – the Commissioner’s house gardens. The very bench where scenes of Trixie and Tom were shot and a stunning place to visit and experience the beauty of a walled garden, whether you are a Call The Midwife fan or not.
Despite Nonnatus house not being set in Chatham Dockyard, the scenes of Poplar in 1958 to 1964 (where season 8 will take us) are right before your eyes on the Call the Midwife tour.
Irene’s knowledge of the set and scenes was second to none, and she walked us through each scene story by story, episode by episode. Every spot of the tour oozed history, and despite the tour guides never knowing when filming could be running (it’s all very top secret), if you were really lucky, you could even end up on a tour around the actual scenes being shot.
Towards the end of the on foot tour, we finished off with a visit to the brand new exhibition. An incredibly moving part, where the shows costumes, props and pieces of set have been set out for fans of the show to experience. With a beautiful background music, this part really brought a lump to my throat as I looked over the stunning bridal gown of beloved Barbara, whos loss touched so many of us at the end of series seven.
As an extra special part of the press day, we finished off with an afternoon tea in the Comissioners house events marquee. Incidentally, you can book a Call the midwife afternoon tea in the Grosvenor house set mentioned… Our room was set out with a top table for some very special guests; we were treated to a Q&A session with some of the cast of the show.
Sat before us some of the most talented and loved faces in British television; Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne), Stephen McGann (Dr Turner), Cliff Parisi (Fred), Annabelle Apsion (Violet), Laura Main (Shelagh Turner), Victoria Yeates (Sister Winifred) and Pippa Harris (Executive Producer).
It was clear from the discussion that the cast of Call the Midwife are as passionate about their jobs as we are as an audience. Since it launched in 2012 it has touched on so many difficult subjects, which as Jenny and Stephen reinforced, have been taken into the hearts of the British Public because despite the difference in time, and advances in medicines and healthcare, this show is about community. Something we can all relate to as we have all experienced moments of joy and sadness as loved ones enter and leave this world, which the programme always presents in a sensitive, often simple, way. Death is a part of life, and too commonly represented in the media as a dramatic event, Call The Midwife offers scenes of quiet and thought provoking passing which touch us in a way no other show has managed to do in quite the same way.
Alongside me on the tour was the talented and inspiring fellow Kent blogger Jo from Guilty Mother. She asked a fantastic question about Mum Guilt, and whether the cast believed it was a thing i the late fifties. As Jenny expressed, families then were so large, and it was all about surviving, it probably was a thing, but way down the list! Cliff and Annabelle also discussed their roles as less than conventional family set up, with Reggie being part of their family; a bond that is clearly felt both on and off screen. At this point the incredibly beautiful Laura Main stepped in and discussed her character Shelagh Turner – a busy mum of three who will be returning to work this coming season. With childcare and juggling family life bound to be a storyline for Shelagh, it seems that even 54 years can’t change some things!
I did my best press gang impression and asked the panel about my favourite episode – the South Africa trip, how that experience was for them and whether any more trips are planned. As Jenny Agutta’s eyes lit up she visibly transcended to some extraordinary and happy memories in her mind. She talked about how the cast sang together, Amazing Grace on the back of a pick up truck, as the sun set, and how the experience was something very special they shared together. Stephen also contributed, that his wife, a writer for Call The Midwife, felt strongly that should South Africa be used for shooting, then the storyline should be authentic to the location and the issues faced there at that period in time. I think we will all agree they certainly did themselves proud in achieving exactly that.
We heard the panel talk about the reasons they love filming at Chatham; the ability to breathe in fresh air and be amongst a living, working historical site. With access for the public to enjoy the experience too and not be behind the closed doors of a studio environment. Cliff had the hilarious personality that you would imagine, and he clearly felt passionate about the vibrancy and historical importance of Chatham as a piece of local history. The cast shared anecdotes from filming days; car crashes filmed down the cobbled streets, fancy dress racing, as well as moments that will stay with them; seeing their fictional characters get married, fall in love, and saying goodbye. The passion for their roles was clear to see, and their emotional investment in the people they play is absolutely part of what makes this much loved British drama so special.
So what’s next for Call The Midwife? No spoilers, obviously but Pippa Harris, Executive producer was able to share that there are some well known faces joining the cast for season 8; Miriam Margoyles as Sister Mildred will explode onto our scenes in the way we have come to know and love from Harry Potter. Two new sisters played by Fenella and Ella, and a new receptionist for Dr Turner. Plus, we will see the return of the hugely popular Trixie from her ‘holidays’ with a new european chic look and bundles of fabulous storylines as always. Of course, Helen George has in real life been busy having her own baby, and the cast gushed over her beautiful baby who they have had a chance to meet. ‘Mother and baby are doing well’!
And so, as my day had to come to an end (the school run waits for no Mum) I made like Cinderella and turned on my heels as the clock approached three; home just in time to be waiting outside the classroom door for my own babies.
Thank you so much to The Chatham Dockyard for making my Thursday quite spectacular, and for all the cast, the people behind Neal Street Productions, Visit Kent and to my fellow blogger Guilty Mother for being such wonderful company.
I’m off to watch the entire seven series again!