ON THE COVER: JENNIFER KIRBY
The latest addition to the Call the Midwife cast on working with volatile babies and screen legends.
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
MY MUM CRIES WATCHING CALL THE
MIDWIFE – EVEN MORE NOW THAT I AM IN IT!
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