A Labour of Love: In Conversation with Jennifer Kirby

Actress Jennifer Kirby has had an illustrious stage career, working with the Royal Shakespeare Company as well as performing at the Salisbury Playhouse and Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. She made her television breakthrough last year in the sixth series of Call the Midwife as east-end nurse, Valerie Dyer, and is back on our screens this Sunday for the seventh series. culturised caught up with her to find out what it’s been like starring in such a popular show.

Were you scared about the fans’ reactions when you first joined Call the Midwife?

First and foremost I was thrilled. It was surreal and amazing. I did think ‘gosh, this is so popular, is it going to change things?’, but actually it hasn’t at all. I just pretty much live my life as I always have. I just happen to be on this incredibly popular TV show at the same time. Not many people recognise me or anything like that. People will send me a message on Twitter or something, and that’s always really lovely. The fans are really supportive and nice because they love it so much, and so I just get lots of nice things really.

Portraits by Will Bremridge. Hair and makeup by Charlotte Wood using Lancôme

How did you find the transition from stage to screen?

I felt very comfortable on stage because that’s been predominantly what I did before Midwife. On stage you’re kind of having to push everything out, like you have to reach the back row, and you have to make sure that what you’re putting across is getting received. Whereas I think with TV you just have to let the audience come to you. That’s a key difference and something that’s hard at first. It’s quite difficult to tell yourself ‘OK, you don’t need to do all of that stuff.’ I was nervous at first, but everyone is so lovely and supportive on the show and the characters are great and so well-written that I quickly forgot all about that.

Do you feel more comfortable with your character now you’ve done a second series?

I definitely feel like I’m learning about her more as it goes on. She was already a well realised character when they wrote her. But like with all people you get to know them more as it goes on. With each episode I felt like I knew something else about her.

Valerie stars in a beauty pageant this series – did you expect her to do that?

It’s funny because I would never enter a beauty pageant. But back then in the early sixties nobody would have batted an eyelid. It speaks volumes about her character that she decides to do it in a good-natured way, mucking in with everyone. So it does really suit her character because she’s just the kind of no-nonsense ‘oh, I’ll just do it’ person. She doesn’t seem like a beauty pageant sort of girl, but that’s quite nice really. It’s nice when a character does something you don’t expect.

Jennifer Kirkby in Call the Midwife, BBC 2017

Do you think you’re quite similar to Valerie? In what ways are you different?

I think everybody brings a certain amount of themselves to a character. I think this kind of completely transformative acting is incredible but most characters stem from the things in ourselves and things that we know about. There’s a lot of her that I see in myself, like she’s contained and quite forthright, but I think she’s a much better person than me. I would aspire to be as brave and as skilled and as passionate as she is.

What would you say to people who criticise Midwife as cosy, easy-viewing?

I think the people that put it under that umbrella as cosy and nostalgic are generally the people who haven’t seen it. Once you sit down and watch it most people go ‘oh, that’s not what it’s really about at all.’ It is comforting because it’s very hopeful, and it’s about love, and it’s about the human condition and people being kind to each other, but it’s also about very hard-hitting issues. The writers never shy away from difficult topics that other dramas wouldn’t cover. I think that’s really wonderful especially on prime-time television, to help people learn more about our history and about our current climate as well. It’s predominantly led by women and I think sadly that’s still quite a rare thing. But it shows that people want that, they want female-led dramas, which is in evidence by the viewing figures really.

What’s the atmosphere like on set?

It’s always really interesting. We have a midwife advisor on the set who’s been there since the beginning. Anytime we have any questions about anything she will be there to answer them, and give us books to read. Actually by the end of the series I think we all felt quite well informed. But obviously not nearly as much as an actual midwife!

We have loads of fun on set, especially when we’re all together and do the big dining room scenes. That’s kind of a recipe for disaster though because we’re all sat opposite each other for quite a long time and end up talking about all kinds of things in between the takes and making each other laugh. We get the giggles a lot because everyone in the show is very funny and very talented. Like Linda Bassett and Judy Parfitt – just hilarious people who are so naturally funny that you can’t help but laugh.

Series 7 of Call the Midwife starts Sunday 21 January 8pm on BBC One.