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Writer Heidi's special delivery; Janet Tansley talks to the Liverpool scriptwriter behind the BBC's hit new drama, Call The Midwife.

LIVERPOOL writer Heidi Thomas has been very busy of late, juggling TV scripts for two top drama series.

"So, if you happen to see a midwife riding a bike outside 65 Eaton Place, you'll know why," she laughs.

Work has overlapped for Heidi, who is the pen behind Upstairs Downstairs and now new hit Call The Midwife.

But it's the latter for which she is currently celebrating, after the first show has aired: "We got 8.5m viewers, beating Dancing on Ice," says Heidi.

"And normally people tune in and then drop off after the first 15 minutes, but figures for Call the Midwife actually increased as the programme went on, which is wonderful, especially when you've put your heart and soul into it."

Set in East London in the 1950s, Call The Midwife is a moving insight into the world of midwifery, family life and community; seen through the eyes of young nurse Jenny Lee, as she arrives at Nonnatus House to live and work as a midwife alongside an order of Nuns.

The six-part drama is based on the memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth, who worked as a young midwife in Poplar, attached to the nun-midwives of the Anglican Community of St John the Divine.

Heidi, who also penned the Liverpool-based drama Lilies, says: "I was approached by producer Pippa Harris who told me she had got her hands on a marvellous book which, though not great literature, was compelling.

"I normally do early 19thcentury dramas like Cranford, so it was something a little more modern for me! But she was right, I couldn't put it down.

"Jennifer Worth had never written before she sat down at the age of 70 and simply wrote what she remembered. The trilogy she eventually completed is a record of the women she knew who had made an impression on her.

"A bit like the series, it wasn't hyped, but it just spoke to people. It spoke to women on a deep level about their emotional experience.

"It was funny and touching and I wanted to convey this to the TV audience in the same way. It's about the human condition, the strength of women and the ability to survive in what were dreadful conditions.

"While it isn't a preachy book, it demonstrates the Christian way, with a resonance about faith and a belief which is invaluable.

"The nuns saw some terrible things but they were so nonjudgmental.

They would never criticise single mothers or prostitutes; they just got on with the work they were there to do. And, while it isn't an expression they would have used, they made a difference."

Heidi met Jennifer, who sadly died a week before filming began, before she started work on the series. It should have been a mere formality, but the two struck a close bond: "Jennifer and I really hit it off so, when she was well, we chatted on the phone and I could pick her brains about things that weren't in the book.

"She trusted me to do what was right and I had a huge respect for her and what she had accomplished."

She didn't meet the nuns: "Jennifer wanted to protect the identity of the nuns, so there was no intrusion on their spiritual life, but I found out that the order had moved to Birmingham and they turned out to be incredibly pro the idea. They came down on a bus and were on set; they brought photos and examples of their wimples and surplices - and they gave practical advice.

"Pam Ferris, who plays Sister Evangelina, asked 'how can I ride a bike in this?' and they told her how they tucked their surplice into their belts."

Needless to say, the injection of humour was something for which Heidi is definitely credited and which comes through the dialogue: "It's a Liverpool thing to crack a joke in a serious situation that does make people wince a bit, but that's the point."

The drama has garnered a superb cast with Pam, Jenny Agutter, Judy Parfitt and Miranda Hart, the latter well worth tuning in for, says Heidi, when she arrives in the series on Sunday for what is her first serious acting role.

"And that meant we were able to balance that with some new faces like Jessica Raine, who plays Jenny. We wanted a character who seemed naive, so it was nice to have an unknown actress play her (not that I think Jessica would have remained unknown for long - but we can say we got to her first!)."

And Heidi, who was also executive producer, doesn't rule out the possibility of another series: "We deliberately kept back some of the stories from the book, so there's plenty of material."

Until then, there will be no twiddling of thumbs. As well as her TV work, Heidi is working on a couple of films The Buccaneers and Middlemarch, with Sam Mendes' company.

"And I'm also working on a Broadway musical, though I can't say more about that yet. I had never envisaged this, but I love musicals."

Though it hardly seems possible, Heidi does ensure she has time for her family.

"Steve and I (Heidi is married to actor Stephen McGann) blew out a Radio Times cover party because our son Dominic, 15, is in the middle of GCSE exams and it seemed right that we should be at home with him. I make him a banana cake which we call revision cake, which gets him going."

And she is looking forward to spending her wedding anniversary in August watching athletics at the Olympics.

"My husband asked last year 'on our wedding anniversary next year would you like to go and see the hurdles?' and I said 'er, yes'. We were lucky enough to get three tickets for us and Dominic on the second Monday of the Olympics Games.

"I often have to drive past where the stadium is being built and I'm actually getting quite excited.

"Steve and I have been married 22 years, so we plan to drive down and have a picnic - and I'm hoping there will be some Champagne in a bucket, too."

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NUNS ON THE BABY RUN: Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) and Trixie Foster (Helen George) WRITER: Heidi Thomas says it's an honour to entertain us
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Publication:Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, England)
Date:Jan 20, 2012
Words:1055
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