Judy Parfitt plays Sister Monica Joan in Call The Midwife.
Why has Call The Midwife proved so successful over the last eight years?
When we started it was for six episodes, and none of us thought for a second that we’d still be here eight years later. The only thing I can go by is the reaction I get when I go out. I’ve been acting since I was 16, and I’ve never known anything like it. The public seem to have taken over. They own it. They love it.
Tell us more…
I think it’s so popular for a variety of reasons. For a start, it’s set in near history – when we started, it was only 50 years ago – and the way life has changed since then is totally incredible. In the early episodes, we saw people living in tenement blocks with one outside lavatory for literally hundreds of people. They were living in terrible conditions. That was what first of all grabbed the attention. Audiences couldn’t believe that people were living like that so recently. Call The Midwife is also a very well-cast show, with a diverse lot of characters.
Most of all, in this day and age, people want to watch something with the family and not be afraid of what might happen. I think, quite honestly, people have had enough of sex and violence and everything being pushed down their throats. And people also love watching the miracle – and it is a miracle every single time – of a baby being born. No matter how many times you see it, it’s as though it’s the first time. It’s the most extraordinary thing. Wonderful.
Are you like your screen alter ego?
No. She’s as far away from me as it’s possible to get! I don’t share the quality of patience with my character. She is highly intelligent, extremely well educated, very well read, very kind, very caring, but she’s not with the programme a lot of the time. She loses the plot every now and then.
What is the biggest challenge playing this character?
Sister Monica Joan always has the most convoluted dialogue and uses the most arcane words that nobody really uses much nowadays. For instance, yesterday I was given this speech which wasn’t anything to do with emotion or plot. It was her describing in the most extraordinary way what happens in a game of bingo. It was at 10 o’clock at night at the end of the day after another hard scene, and it was very difficult!
Did you enjoy working with Miriam Margolyes?
Yes. Miriam is an extraordinary character. We first met in Los Angeles quite a lot of years ago. You can’t ignore Miriam. I think it’s terrific when someone says what they think all the time and doesn’t pussyfoot around. She is hugely gifted, and she brings a different sort of persona to Call The Midwife, which is great.
Finally, can you put into words the contribution made by the series creator Heidi Thomas?
Call the Midwife is brilliantly conceived and written by Heidi. She’s written about such difficult subjects as genital mutilation and incest in a way that is not titillating or offensive. She’s covered so many different aspects of society so brilliantly. Her imagination stuns me. I think she’s quite extraordinary.
Pictured: Sister Winifred (Victoria Yeates) and Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt)