This moving, intimate, funny and true-to-life series, based on the best-selling memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth, tells colorful stories of midwifery and families in London’s East End in the 1950s. Jenny Lee, a young woman raised in the wealthy English countryside, has chosen to become a nurse and now, as a newly qualified midwife, has gone to work in the poorest area of the city. Attached to an order of nursing nuns at Nonnatus House, Jenny is part of a team of women who minister to expectant mothers, many of whom give birth at home in appalling conditions. The drama follows Jenny as she meets her patients and learns to love the people who live in the East End. Starring newcomer Jessica Raine as Jenny, the cast includes Jenny Agutter, Pam Ferris, Miranda Hart and Judy Parfitt. Three other new faces, Helen George, Bryony Hannah and Laura Main complete the regular ensemble cast. Vanessa Redgrave provides the narration as the mature Jenny.
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“Three decades on, I still will not go to a science-fiction convention because there’ll be people coming up to me in little green outfits,” laughs Agutter, with a mock-shudder.
It’s a side that emerges in the delightful scenes in which Sister Julienne arbitrates (and sometimes fuels) her fellow sisters’ squabbles — scenes Agutter clearly relished. “The nuns are not perfect. Their way of life doesn’t mean they all get along with one another, and the fact that they don’t get along is very funny.”
Reality bitesWhat wasn’t funny was the squalor just beyond the convent doors, and Agutter was as shocked as the trainee midwife in the opening scenes. “I came from the 1960s ‘me’ generation, whereas the 50s were about recovering from two world wars. They were depressing and difficult times, and nowhere more so than in the Docklands.”
Yet there are a few things Agutter feels we could learn from the big-hearted sisters of Nonnatus House. “We’re seeing the difficulties that ‘me, me, me’ attitude has created. The people sitting outside St Paul’s have a point. One’s got to look at those issues and see how you can make society work.”
“I’m sworn to secrecy! I wasn’t allowed a script until I got there, and when I did, I felt like a complete child being on big sets and a huge parking lot full of Winnebagos.”
She does let slip that two of these housed Spider-Man and Iron Man; we suspect Agutter won’t be able to avoid sci-fi conventions for much longer.
This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine that went on sale 17 January 2012.
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