The lat­est ad­di­tion to the Call the Mid­wife cast on work­ing with volatile ba­bies and screen le­gends.

The Mail on Sunday - You - - Beuaty Buzz - PHO­TO­GRAPHS RACHELL SMITH

With a gamine hair­cut that calls to mind Au­drey Hep­burn in Ro­man Hol­i­day, and a star­ring role in the BBC’s most heart­warm­ing drama Call the Mid­wife, it’s no won­der that ac­tress Jen­nifer Kirby is caus­ing a stir. There are on­line threads pon­der­ing her love life – and de­spair­ing over her re­luc­tance to share all on so­cial me­dia about her al­leged re­la­tion­ship with ac­tor Robert Gil­bert (with whom she ap­peared on stage in the Royal Shake­speare Com­pany’s pro­duc­tion of Henry V in 2015). Jen­nifer was al­ready an ac­claimed stage ac­tress with the RSC when tele­vi­sion came knock­ing. Not bad for a self-con­fessed ‘bookworm’ from the ru­ral Mid­lands, who fell into act­ing by ac­ci­dent.

We are meet­ing at a low-key pub around the cor­ner from the West Lon­don home she is said to share with Robert, to dis­cuss her role on Call the Mid­wife. (When I ask if she is still dat­ing ‘the same ac­tor’, she smiles shyly and replies, ‘It’s all good.’) She has just fin­ished film­ing the sev­enth se­ries of Call the Mid­wife which kicks off next month after the Christmas spe­cial (set dur­ing the ‘big freeze’ of 1962 to 63). The 29-year- old ac­tress joined the cast early last se­ries as ex-Army nurse Va­lerie Dyer, an East End na­tive who gives up her job pulling pints in her aunt’s pub to de­vote her­self to mid­wifery along­side the nuns and nurses of Non­na­tus House, hav­ing helped out in the af­ter­math of an ex­plo­sion in the docks.

Call the Mid­wife is a feel-good favourite: it won Best Fam­ily Drama at the TV Choice Awards in Septem­ber. Set in the sto­ical world of post­war East Lon­don, it evokes nos­tal­gia for sim­pler times and cel­e­brates the cy­cle of life, with ba­bies born ev­ery episode. But it is ‘not all lovely and cosy’, Jen­nifer is quick to point out. ‘It has that warmth, of course, but I wouldn’t call it es­capism. It is also ex­tremely hard-hit­ting, which peo­ple some­times don’t re­alise when they start watch­ing. Some view­ers come away a bit shocked: noth­ing is sugar-coated.’ Last se­ries, it tack­led fe­male gen­i­tal mu­ti­la­tion; the year be­fore it was the thalido­mide scan­dal. ‘This sea­son will be more of the same,’ she prom­ises, ‘go­ing straight to the heart of painful is­sues in a beau­ti­ful and sen­si­tive way. The show is moral and spir­i­tual: about love tri­umph­ing over hard­ship.’

Poignantly, Va­lerie her­self turns out to have been de­liv­ered at Non­na­tus House by Sis­ter Mon­ica Joan (the nun, suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia, played by act­ing vet­eran Judy Parfitt). The scene where Sis­ter Mon­ica Joan tells Va­lerie she de­liv­ered her, was, Jen­nifer says, her all-time favourite. ‘When you look into Judy’s eyes, you feel ev­ery­thing you’re meant to – scenes like that are why I be­came an ac­tress. I love how Va­lerie is a real East En­der com­ing full cir­cle: she brings a lot of com­mu­nity into the show.’

It’s al­most a case of life par­al­lelling art: Va­lerie has grown up ador­ing the mid­wives who brought her into the world (‘for a long time, she be­lieved ba­bies came out of their med­i­cal bags’), while Jen­nifer watched the show ‘from the very first episode’, loved it and dreamed of one day be­ing a part of it. ‘I even got my mum hooked; she cries watch­ing it ev­ery week – even more now that I am in it! I was in New York tour­ing with the RSC when I heard they were cast­ing a new re­cruit. I was fran­ti­cally send­ing in au­di­tion tapes in the hope of land­ing the role. It’s not the sort of job you ever think you’ll get.’ When she heard the news, she was home alone. ‘I thought, “Have I imag­ined this? Who can I tell?” I was try­ing to ring ev­ery­one.’

The daugh­ter of a teacher mother and a busi­ness­man fa­ther, Jen­nifer had a happy up­bring­ing (with her younger sis­ter Eleanor) in the coun­try­side near Great Malvern in Worces­ter­shire. ‘I go back as of­ten as I can – it’s very ground­ing.’ She at­tended an in­de­pen­dent girls’ school where she was a dili­gent stu­dent who al­ways had her nose in a book and ‘never even con­sid­ered act­ing – it’s the last thing any­one would sug­gest when you’re as shy as I was’. It was only when study­ing for her mu­sic GCSE – ‘real­is­ing I was rub­bish at it’ – that the thought of switch­ing to drama oc­curred to her. ‘From that first [act­ing] les­son, I felt a rush; my shy­ness van­ished. It took me a while to say out loud, “I want to be an ac­tress.” When I told my par­ents they were a bit shocked, but they sup­ported me from the off.’

She stud­ied English lit­er­a­ture at the Univer­sity of East Anglia in Nor­wich. ‘I could have ap­plied to drama school, but I knew I needed to do a bit of grow­ing up and fig­ur­ing out who I was



JEN­NIFER WEARS TOP, Coast. TROUSERS, Zeynep Kar­tal. RING, Sif Jakobs. OP­PO­SITE: TOP, Essie Vie

JEN­NIFER KIRBY pho­tographed by RACHELL SMITH. TOP, Essie Vie

Jen­nifer, far left, as Va­lerie in Call the Mid­wife; as El­iz­a­beth in Pride and Prej­u­dice, and at the TV Choice Awards

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