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December 2016 / People / by Karen Heaney

Labour of Love

She might be out of pocket after placing an ill-advised bet on Will Young to win Strictly Come Dancing this year (“whatever you do, don’t tell Aljaz”), but Call the Midwife star Helen George is feeling pretty pleased with life. After a year of almost back-to-back jobs, she’s enjoying some downtime, seizing the opportunity to be productive: “I was in the middle of hoovering, and I’ve got my tax return to file, and I actually have the time to do it!” she laughs, adding hastily, “God, I’m boring”. And then there’s packing – she’s off to New York for a few days tomorrow…

For somebody who took the acting route because “it felt like the only option for a non-academic student – well, that or manager of Aston Villa” – she’s doing OK. Her career to date encompasses singing backing vocals for Elton John; appearing on stage in The Woman in White, Into the Woods, High School Musical and After Miss Julie; and on screen in Hotel Babylon, The Three Musketeers, Scar Tissue, Doctors and Hollyoaks. And of course, a dazzling performance on last year’s
Strictly Come Dancing.

A stint at the Royal Academy of Music studying musical theatre certainly helped, but she also credits her agent. “I was lucky enough to find the strongest woman that I have ever met, who saw something in me when nobody else did,” Helen explains. That, along with mastering the art of perseverance – probably the most valuable lesson she learned at drama school: “I started to get a kick out of being told no; I think all actors have to have that dog with a bone attitude to succeed.”

Does she have any regrets, then, any parts that got away? “No, no, I don’t think so,” she shakes her head. “But mainly because I’ve always found it hard to say no to things!” Anything she wishes she’d never said yes to, then? “Ahahaha… No, there are always jobs that you think are going to be easy and they turn out to be much more arduous. Some productions just don’t have the right chemistry, for some reason they just don’t work. Whereas with something like Call the Midwife, everything just comes together and it works.”

That the show is still going strong after six years is “madness” to Helen; she recalls being offered the initial six episode contract and feeling elated that she didn’t have to waitress that summer. From day one she was won over by the strength of female voice in the show. “What I loved, to begin with was the sense of womanhood, female bond and female strength. It’s written by a woman, it’s produced by women, and it’s a very female strong cast.” It is an environment that Helen feels lucky to be working in: “Everybody works so bloody hard. It’s a long six months and the joy of it is that we do all really get on. There are people who come back to it year and year again, and want to work as hard as we do.” A fact that is even more surprising, given the old adage about never working with animals and children.

But Helen assures me that, though there is never a guarantee that they will do as directed, once you know what you are doing (and overcome your squeamishness – “I’m constantly being pooed on!”), working with babies is great fun. And the cast and crew certainly do know what they are doing: “We have a brilliant midwifery adviser who has shown us how to calm the babies on set, so I’ve picked up a few techniques.” A veritable baby-whisperer, then. I expect she is constantly called on as a babysitter. “Surprisingly, I’m not that in demand, I wonder why that’s not happened?” she muses. Given her schedule, it’s probably a good thing.

Speaking of which, next up for Helen is the Call the Midwife Christmas special, followed by a new series in the New Year. So what’s in store for Trixie? The Christmas episode sees the Nonnatus House team relocating to South Africa to join a mission working in the Eastern Cape, dealing with poverty, segregation and a lack of medical resources. Out of her comfort zone, Trixie is pushed to get involved in the medical side of things. “We see her being professionally challenged, which was so interesting to play.” Returning to London for series six, it’s back to reality for Trixie, who is, Helen says, “still keeping strong with the AA meetings, and hoping to find a new love! But as far as that’s concerned, you’ll have to wait and see…”

For Helen herself, the future is a blank slate. “I’ve had such a busy time, I just need to take some time out so that I actually want to work again, and enjoy it.” She might be off to the States on holiday, but there is, she assures me, no danger of her deciding to stay. She would relocate temporarily, though, for the right role – a part in a Tarantino film wouldn’t be sniffed at – but she doesn’t have the thirst to move there for good. “I’m just in love with London, and I would miss it too much.”

There’s the shopping: “I’m a Liberty girl, it’s a magical store – there’s something about it that’s just really special, it’s my Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” The foodie scene: “you can’t beat a winter dinner at Andrew Edmunds, followed by drinks downstairs at Hix”. Or, closer to home, the delights of walking her dog on the Heath to work up an appetite for one of The Spaniards’ Inn’s famous roasts. And, while she has the opportunity she’d like to spend time being a tourist in her own city: “There are so many things that you just never do when you live here – like the Tower of London and the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve never been there, it’s mad.”

And of course, she’ll probably enjoy an evening or two with her feet up in front of the TV, checking in on Aljaz and Daisy’s Strictly performance. One thing she definitely won’t be watching, though, is the Call the Midwife Christmas special, because, “it feels almost like sacrilege – witnessing your mistakes, or even patting yourself on the back; I think when you start doing that you can get complacent.” Onwards and upwards, then.

Call the Midwife returns with a Christmas Special and a sixth series in January 2017.