Louise Ironside is a writer of substance. This was more than evident in the episode of Call the Midwife penned by the Edinburgh-born playwright and former actress, and screened two Sundays ago as part of the latest series of BBC One’s hit TV drama. This wasn’t just for the content of Ironside’s episode of the 1960s-set look at life in and around an east London hospital run by nuns. It was also about what happened following its broadcast.
First of all, Labour MP David Lammy tweeted how the episode ‘has got me in pieces’, singling out a remarkable performance by Annette Crosbie as a former suffragette. Then came the news that the head of blood donation campaigns for the NHS had been in touch with the programme’s makers to let them know that within a day of it being shown, the programme had prompted a 46% increase in people in the UK registering as donors.
This wasn’t the result of some Brechtian polemic. Call the Midwife is a prime time mainstream drama watched weekly by upwards of seven million viewers. This may be why the programme has been hailed in some quarters as the most subversive drama on television, and it is partly this sleight of hand that gives the show its power.
Within the first five minutes of Ironside’s episode, it touched on immigration, citizenship and the Windrush generation. There were nods as well to everyday racism, working class poverty and notions of patriarchy, women’s rights and community, with participation in local politics to the fore. This was all before the soundtrack’s sweeping strings eased us into the episode’s two main plots. The first was about a Ghanaian family coming to terms with being diagnosed with sickle cell anaemia. The second focused on Crosbie’s ageing suffragette’s struggle to retain her personal independence.
All of which is a remarkable testament to the the programme’s main writer and co-producer Heidi Thomas, who has drawn inspiration from the memoirs of real life midwife Jennifer Worth. Ironside’s episode, directed beautifully by Kate Saxon, seems to have hit a particular nerve.
“It’s been amazing,” says Ironside of the response. “The programme’s got such a massive audience that it always makes a bit of a splash, and that’s to do with a combination of the story, and the way it feeds into the current political situation. There’s also the absolutely amazing performances by the guest cast. The actors who played the family were just brilliant, and Annette Crosbie is a legend. She blew me away in the read-through, and she did it again onscreen. The layers she added to the script were incredible.”
Such emotional empathy isn’t an unusual occurrence.
“It does this week after week,” says Ironside. “It’s a genuine phenomenon. There are so many elements that make the show a success. It’s got working women at its centre, and whether it’s the sisters or the nurses, there’s no bloke telling them what to do. Stephen McGann’s character Dr Turner might think he’s in charge every so often, but I think he knows his place. The women are running the shop, and that’s great to see. Then you’ve got the birth stories, which catch people at a vulnerable moment in their lives, and I think it’s quite cathartic for people watching them going through it.”
With several other episodes penned by Scottish writers Carolyn Bonnyman and Andrea Gibb, as Ironside points out, Call the Midwife is essentially about community.
“It feels very now,” she says. “It’s about a community that’s changing, and people’s fears and uncertainty about that. You’re not clobbering people over the head, but Heidi is very clear about the stories she wants to tell, and sets them up beautifully.”
Ironside’s first episode on the programme involved a plot about female genital mutilation.
“With such a big audience, you want to get it right,” she says. “We don’t want the characters walking round with an issue pasted on their back. It’s really important that they’re real people, and that it’s done with integrity, and with love.”
This isn’t the first time Ironside’s writing has caused a stir. As well as penning episodes of Waterloo Road, Shetland, Law and Order and Lip Service, over the last decade she has written extensively for BBC Scotland soap, River City. In 2016, she won the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain’s Best Long Running TV series award for an episode involving the eating disorder of main character, Bob, played by Tom Urie. With long-running TV institutions Emmerdale and Holby City also nominated, Ironside and River City’s victory was doubly sweet.
“Just being nominated was amazing enough, but I owe everything to River City. They took me on when I had no experience of writing for TV, and to see it up against those other shows was brilliant.”
Much of Ironside’s melding of popular drama and social issues dates back to her early theatre work on shows such as Risk, about vulnerable young people, produced by The Grassmarket Project, and Trade, about sex workers in Edinburgh, presented by the Oxygen House company in the early 1990s. Both were directed by the lunchtime theatre company’s co-founder John Mitchell, with whom Ironside worked extensively at what was then the Netherbow Theatre, now the Scottish Storytelling Centre.
“Writing those plays were really similar to writing TV episodes,” Ironside reflects, “doing all this research and working with people. I love that, taking four or five really random things and seeing how they can work together. It really suits my brain.”
Ironside worked with Mitchell again at Lung Ha’s Theatre Co, writing shows including The Little Lady from the Lucky Star and The Homemade Child. For the now long-closed Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh, Ironside wrote Gloria Goodheart & The Glitter Grab Gang and The Skelpin’ Wean.
It was at Theatre Workshop where Ironside was first exposed to knitting together multiple narratives when she took part in the Stockbridge-based venue’s annual large-scale community plays.
As an actress, Ironside went on to appear in several productions at the Royal Lyceum Theatre. She also appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Rona Munro’s early play, Your Turn to Clean the Stair, and in David Greig’s first main-stage play, Europe. She even did a stint in Channel 4’s Scouse soap, Brookside.
“What I love about acting is rehearsal,” she says, “researching it and trying things five different ways, which in a way is sort of what I’m doing now without having to get up and do it.”
Ironside went on to become playwright in residence with the Traverse, though the play she was commissioned to write during that time, Seven Miles from Fortune City, fell between the cracks of changes in the theatre’s artistic directorship, and remains unproduced.
“I’ve got a lot of telly work out of that,” she says. “It’s out of date now, but I still use it as a spec script for TV work.”
With several TV projects in the pipeline, a return to the stage seems unlikely, though neither is it something Ironside is ruling out.
“I’d love to do something for theatre again,” she says. “Getting all this response for Call the Midwife is great, but it’s really strange, because I can sit down and watch it with mum, and not get any sense of anyone else. But doing theatre, and being in a room full of people responding, you can’t beat it.”
Call the Midwife is currently running on BBC One on Sunday nights at 8pm. Episode Two of the current series, written by Louise Ironside, can be watched on BBC iPlayer for the next two months.
The Herald, January 29th 2019