The family of a bestselling author whose memoirs have been adapted for a primetime BBC series speak to Abena Bailey about how visiting the film set helped them cope with her death
It’s rare that soon after someone close to you dies that you get plunged into a recreation of their life complete with actors, sets and costumes, but for the family of the late Jennifer Worth that is exactly what happened.
Call The Midwife – the latest Sunday night period drama on the BBC – is a moving and funny look at Jennifer’s experiences as a midwife in London’s East End during the 1950s.
It portrays an 18-year-old Jennifer – a version of her that her family never knew before she met her husband Philip and came to live in Hemel Hempstead.
The Jennifer in the series is inexperienced, suffering with a broken heart and only on the cusp of developing the strong views she was so famous for in her later life.
Her daughter Suzannah Hart said: “In a way we are blessed. There’s very few people who have this kind of memory they can keep of someone who has passed.”
Jennifer, a former nurse, spent the last 10 years of her life at her home on St John’s Road in Boxmoor writing her memoirs, which were published in a trilogy of books – Call The Midwife, Shadows Of The Workhouse and Farewell To The East End.
An article by esteemed midwife Terri Coates had mentioned that there was a lack of novels about the profession and Jennifer had taken it as a challenge. Her books became bestsellers and to date have sold nearly one million copies.
Before Jennifer passed away last year, BBC One controller Danny Cohen and the company’s drama controller Ben Stephenson commissioned Neal Street productions to adapt Call The Midwife into a drama series.
Before the programme launch on Sunday, colleagues, friends and family were invited to a private screening at The Courthouse Hotel in London’s West End last Monday.
Ben Stephenson addressed the audience and said how the series wouldn’t have been possible without Jennifer and thanked Philip and Suzannah for their assistance.
Guests were given copies of the book as well as monogrammed hankies, which was a good idea as by the end of the showing there was not a dry eye in the room.
Afterwards Philip told everyone how amazing it was to watch his wife blossom into a wonderful writer in her later life.
Suzannah described being swept along in the creation of her mother’s work as a wonderful experience and that having her work brought to life was a remarkable tribute.
“They even used mother’s own handwriting in a scripted sequence at the beginning,” she said.
Jennifer was very much involved in the early stages of the making of Call The Midwife, working closely with screenwriter Heidi Thomas (Upstairs Downstairs and Cranford) on the groundwork – during that time the two formed a bond.
Sadly Jennifer developed cancer and passed away just two weeks before filming started but her legacy lives on in the books and the series that are being enjoyed by millions of people.
After her funeral the BBC invited Philip and Suzannah to London to visit the film set at a disused training venue for priests in Mill Hill.
It was a real family affair as Suzannah’s daughters Lydia and Ellie were also involved as extras.
Philip said: “I was able to cope with my emotions because it was so exciting – the fact that Jenny’s book was coming to life was thrilling and made me forget the sadness.”
Suzannah added: “For me it was about keeping her memory alive. It has been wonderful and I felt privileged to be involved.
“Everyone on the set held mother in such high regard we were treated with respect. It was almost as if we were the special ones. They were as privileged to meet us as we were to meet the cast members.”
An all star cast, including Miranda Hart, Jenny Agutter, Pam Ferris, Helen George and Vanessa Redgrave is involved in the series fronted by a newcomer to fame, Jessica Raine as the young Jennifer.
Philip said: “I was emotionally fine about watching Jessica play Jenny. She was acting out the Jenny before my time, the one I hadn’t met. It was also an honour to have Vanessa Redgrave be the voice of older Jenny.”
For Suzannah it has made the re-reading of her mother’s books a slightly different experience.
She said: “The actors pop into my imagination now. I see Chummy as Miranda Hart and can even hear her voice while I’m reading.”
Call The Midwife is on BBC One on Sundays at 8pm.