Born for this
TAKING on the lead role in any TV series is a daunting business but, when that series is based on a best- selling trilogy written by a popular and highly- respected personality and, when it’s your first major acting role, nerves can get somewhat frayed.
Such was the situation in which 29- yearold British actor Jessica Raine found herself when she won the lead role of Jenny Lee in Call the Midwife, the BBC adaptation of Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of her time spent as a midwife in London during the 1950s.
‘‘ I hadn’t done much filming before and I was a bit scared of the camera,’’ admits Raine, whose previous acting experience was limited to a small part in TV series Garrow’s Law and another in 2010 movie Robin Hood ( starring Russell Crowe).
‘‘ It was just terrifying but everyone was very supportive.’’
Indeed, supporting Raine along the way on and off- screen are veteran actors Judy Parfitt, Pam Ferris and Jenny Agutter, as well as Oscar- winner Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the voice of the mature Lee.
And it looks as though the gamble of casting a relatively unknown actor in the lead role has paid off.
Call the Midwife turned out to be the most successful BBC drama in the past 10 years, it also beat Downton Abbey in the ratings war.
A second season was commissioned after just two episodes of season one had aired in the UK. It’s been a similar success story in Australia, where the debut episode fell just short of one million.
The series has followed newly- qualified midwife Jenny Lee as she embarks on her career in the poverty- stricken East End of London. Raised in the wealthy English countryside, Lee knows nothing about poverty, hardship or, indeed, life itself.
Her arrival at one of the poorest parts of London is an eye opener and a steep learning curve for the nurse.
Ironically, for Raine, playing the nervous Lee proved to be something of a comfort for her own nerves.
‘‘ It was a weird parallel, because I was scared and Jenny didn’t know what she was doing and I didn’t know what I was doing,’’ she laughs.
The streets that greet Lee are a world away from what she is used to. Families of between six and 10 children are common and, with just one eight- bed maternity ward to serve the whole district, most deliveries take place at home, few of which have indoor sanitation or hot running water.
‘‘ When I read the script, I thought, ‘ This can’t be true’,’’ Raine says. ‘‘ I cannot fathom the conditions they lived in.
‘‘ I remember wanting it to just be real and not prettify it or make it gruesome. But you’re going to wince!’’
But it’s not just all blood, sweat and tears. There’s also a deep sense of camaraderie between the midwives, the nuns and the patients.
‘‘ All of the women have a resilience and humour,’’ Raines explains. ‘‘ There’s no room for bitchiness because you’re so tired. All of them, which I thought was so refreshing, they’re so empathetic . . . There’s a real heart and a real love.’’
CALL THE MIDWIFE, Sunday, ABC1, 8.30pm
LEADING LADY: Jessica Raine as Jenny Lee is all nerves in Call The Midwife.