Call the Midwife Christmas special: Behind the scenes with Miranda Hart

Gerard Gilbert meets the scene-stealing Miranda Hart - and finds she is relishing being in someone else's series ahead of her own arena stand-up tour

It's the first scene to be shot after lunch and Miranda Hart's Call the Midwife character, Camilla "Chummy" Noakes, has to lift her baby son Freddie from his cot. It's a sequence that is supposed to convey Chummy's re-connecting with her offspring after returning to her nursing job, except that 14-month-old George (one of the four sets of twins to have played Freddie since the current series began filming way back in the summer), is not ready yet for such a touching scene. In fact, he's bawling his head off.

According to his mother watching nearby, George had been up all night teething – but by dint of jigging and whispering soothing noises in George's ear, Hart soon has the toddler mollified. "Motherhood is lifting a heavy baby," she says afterwards. "It's new muscles. He was very well behaved, actually.

"Chummy wasn't loved emotionally and physically as a young child and so she's pouring out that need on to her son – in a healthy way, I think," Hart says of her character's journey in the forthcoming new series. "But she's also got that real yearning to get back to her vocation. So the beginning of the series is quite an interesting place, which is motherhood and juggling the prospect of going back to work."

The last time I visited Hart on the set of Call the Midwife, she had been huddled beneath a blanket in a vast deep-freeze of a hall that doubled as the Poplar community centre. In the intervening 12 months the former Jesuit missionary college in Mill Hill, north London, that was used as the set of Nonnatus House, the fictional home of Call the Midwife's 1950s health-workers, has been sold for re-development as a luxury housing estate. Production was forced to move to its current home, a somewhat dilapidated Gothic mansion on the western fringes of the M25 that used to house the officer's mess at a local RAF base.

Hart expresses surprise at the spate of news stories when they had to switch production bases in the summer. "But then when you're in a show, you forget there are fans of it… people are interested," she says. "I'm fanatical about other shows and you suddenly remember 'of course people love it'. You just can't get fanatical about something you're in."

Call the Midwife is not just big in Britain – beating even the mighty Downton Abbey in the ratings – but a hit in America (where it screens, like Downton, on PBS) and the rest of the English-speaking world (Spanish-speaking countries have also taken to it, says writer and executive producer Heidi Thomas, "perhaps because I had a Spanish character in the very first episode".) Hart's scene-stealing performance as Chummy is consistently singled out for praise by the US critics.

"I'm so thrilled she (Hart) keeps coming back again and again because the thing about Chummy in the books is that she jumps off the page but there isn't a great deal of depth to her," says Thomas, who adapted Cranford and the re-booted Upstairs Downstairs, before Call the Midwife. "She's an actress of some depth and complexity and I find myself writing for that part of her rather than the comedic part.

"She's very intuitive and intellectually clever but she also has this light spirit. Quite recently I was on set and it was a tough day, and Miranda was singing, dancing and laughing – she keeps the energy up between takes. Apparently yesterday she had all the cast on the steps singing "2 Become 1" by the Spice Girls, with Miranda very much as the ringleader."

"Miranda is just one of the girls now," agrees Jessica Raine, who plays Jenny Lee, the young character based on Jennifer Worth, author of the original memoirs of midwifery of the East End of London in the 1950s. "We're just a gang." And there is no doubt that Hart remains committed to the show. Part of the reason, I suggest, is that unlike with her hit BBC sitcom Miranda, Hart does not have to bear sole responsibility for Call the Midwife – she can be part of team. I recall her telling me once that "writing doesn't come naturally to me in what it involves… sitting on your own… I like to play, I like being with people."

"Yeah, absolutely," she says now. "Particularly with a hit show and you know that people are longing for it to come back. It's great when you're not shouldering that burden and, more to the point, somebody else is writing it. It's lovely just to be the actress."

So when can we expect a new series of Miranda? "I'm doing my tour first so this year I've been writing that and doing Call the Midwife," she says. "I think once you do something different and step away from a big project like the sitcom then I get a sense of what I want to do creatively with it and how much I miss it and all that. So hopefully we'll do a couple of specials next year and then go from there."

Hart's arena tour, her first set of stand-up comedy engagements in seven years, begins at the end of February and continues until mid-April, before resuming briefly again next October. Will she be changing the nature of her material to suit the sorts of large venues that she couldn't have hoped to fill in her pre-Miranda stand-up days? "Whatever venue I was in I would to make it as theatrical as possible… as big a show as possible for people," she says. "It's just slightly bizarre that stand-up comedians can play Wembley but hopefully it will be quite an experience.

"I started doing some warm-up gigs in the summer and actually within three or four gigs I felt reminded of how I am on stage and it was nice to have a warmth from the audience because they know me from the sitcom. So I then felt confident quite quickly which was nice and a bit of a relief."

Meanwhile, Hart jokes about potentially being in series nine of Call the Midwife, when the action has moved on to the late 1960s, and the possibility of Chummy starting to experiment with drugs. "She's probably not the most progressive person," she says. "There's something about Chummy in the Sixties which feels hilarious. Perhaps it should be a spinoff sitcom: 'Chummy'!"

For the time being, however, we're still in the late Fifties. What does Hart believe to be the essential appeal of the show? "It's so subjective what you take away from it," she says. "For me, it's a sort of simpler life… real community and the family and friendship that sort of doesn't always really exist now. We're much more isolated and communication is virtual." Hart herself has well over a million followers on Twitter, to whom, in October, she broadcast an appeal after her laptop, containing unspecified new material, was stolen from her home in west London (she never did get it back). "I hate Twitter," she says. "I am on it and I do occasionally say 'Do you want to buy tickets for my tour?' and then I feel a bit embarrassed."

Interestingly, in a year when President Obama has struggled to pass his health-care legislation, critics in the US have flagged up the political aspects of the show, with the LA Times calling it "a timely Valentine to socialised medicine". Hart's younger co-star, Jessica Raine, reckons Call the Midwife is also a feminist drama. "I am very proud to say that it is," she says. "It's rare… too rare… that you see a big series with so many women characters, women of all ages as well."

Pam Ferris, who took the role of Sister Evangelina "thinking it would be a nice little job… ha-ha-ha", agrees with Raine. "I love it on set sometimes when we're sitting around that table we can have eight women," she says. "And we have great conversations, which wouldn't happen if there was mixed gender… there would be games and chat and silliness. We get into quite serious conversations."

Hart is clear about what she sees as the appeal of Chummy – an upper-class character in a drama that consistently champions the lower orders. "Because she wasn't particularly loved when she was younger she's really empathetic," says Hart. "She's been through stuff herself, which gives her the perfect emotional intelligence for her job. She may have been a bit clumsy to start with, but she has the best bedside manner of any of the nurses. I just love the fact that when people have been through rubbish times in their life they are always the ones who are the most compassionate.

"I love Heidi's writing… I loved Cranford and I think she's an absolute genius. But you don't know she might suddenly decide to kill Chummy… you don't know what she's thinking. But I would hate the thought of never playing Chummy again."

Call the Midwife is broadcast on Christmas Day at 6.15pm on BBC1. The new series starts in January

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own