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Helen George reveals why she’s swapped her prim Call The Midwife uniform for a black corset and a racy new role as a mysterious femme fatale

Crikey, Trixie! What would the nuns at Nonnatus House think of their longest-standing midwife, Helen George, dressed up in PVC, heels and stockings?

‘I love it,’ laughs George at the Event photo-shoot, where she pours herself into an array of sexy outfits and throws herself into the kind of alluring poses that would have temperatures rising in the East End, the stomping ground of the Call The Midwife angels. ‘It just feels wonderful to look so different.’

The look could hardly be further from the prim and proper, buttoned-up Sixties midwife uniform usually associated with George on the BBC period drama, which has turned the cast into worldwide stars in both the UK and America.

George, 35, joined the show aged 28, just a few years after graduating from a musical theatre course at the Royal Academy of Music. While other young midwives came and went, George stayed rooted in the East End as the glamorous but troubled Trixie Franklin. As an actress she has become one of television’s most popular stars. Her distinctive vintage features – porcelain skin, large china-blue eyes and Cupid’s bow lips – make her instantly recognisable wherever she goes.

But things are changing. A week later Event catches up with George again, this time in a church rehearsal studio for a new touring production of the classic Daphne du Maurier story My Cousin Rachel, which is riven with themes of death, jealousy and a woman’s sexual power over a man. George has made every effort to shed the immaculately made-up and coiffured Trixie. Her blonde hair hangs in pretty, pale pink hippy tangles down her back, the result of a home dye.


‘I’m doing my best to set Trixie aside,’ she says as we sit in the chapel together during her lunch break. ‘It’s very hard because I’ve played her for nine years and she has become part of me. My biggest issue is my voice, her voice. Trixie is very high, very precise, very proper English and Rachel is an Anglo-Italian who speaks good English but there is an unmistakable foreign pronunciation of certain words and a different depth, which I’m trying to master, but it’s hard. I will also be wearing a black wig and once that is on Trixie will physically disappear.’

I ask her if she will be ramping up the sexual side of Rachel, a widow twice over, with a bohemian past whose exoticism seduces virginal young Philip (Jack Holden), the orphaned nephew of her ex-husband and heir to his Cornwall estate. Her answer is rather surprising.

‘To me this play is less about sex and more about the way women who are different are viewed by society. I think the way Rachel was viewed smacks of our current situation with Meghan Markle and the treatment she gets simply because she is a woman who is not doing things in the way this establishment – the Royal Family – do them. She is different and that engenders hostility. Rachel is Italian coming into a traditional Cornish community with very set ways and ideas. I think this is very much a modern play – it speaks directly to our times with Brexit, when some people feel suspicion and fear towards other nations because they are not exactly like us.

‘Rachel is not liked, she is misinterpreted,’ she continues. ‘There are hints about her past that are outrageously bohemian for the very uptight people of Cornwall of that day. The play was set in the 19th century and although I will be wearing an extremely uncomfortable corset, we are not referencing any period of time because it feels like a story of today.

‘I have always been a feminist but I’m now living through an era where women are tearing down Meghan Markle for not behaving like a traditional member of the Royal Family, while at the same time Phoebe Waller-Bridge is being heaped with awards and praise for Fleabag, a drama series about a woman most definitely not behaving in a conventional manner for a woman. It is completely crazy. For me it is less about a woman who has sexual power and more about a woman who is her own person; that is what frightened the locals about Rachel.’

George says she is extremely committed to the roles she plays. It is part of the reason she could never tear herself away from Call The Midwife and why she was rewarded with meaty plotlines, from alcohol addiction to a ruined engagement to the local vicar, Tom Hereward, played by Jack Ashton, who is her partner in real life and father of their two-year-old daughter, Wren. ‘I used to watch the other girls come and go and for a while I would compare myself to them, but I’ve stopped worrying about that now because you have to understand what works for you.

‘I think having a child and getting that bit older does change you. It makes you aware of what is important and what isn’t. I’ve stayed in the show because I love it, because I believe in it, and because I love the character I play. I am very aware that there are incredibly talented actors I went to drama school with who are still struggling to get agents, let alone auditions, so I am incredibly grateful for everything CTM has done for me. I want to stay with the show for as long as it lasts.

‘I was barely out of drama school when I got the part in Call The Midwife,’ she continues, looking today very much like her younger drama student self, who left her home in Birmingham to study first at the Birmingham School Of Acting and later at the Royal Academy of Music. Her feet are bare and she is wearing half her stage costume – a corset, tailored jacket and vintage skirt– along with patterned leggings

‘I remember telling my mum that Jenny Agutter and Judy Parfitt were in the cast. All I was thinking was: “I am going to be in a BBC drama with these amazing actresses.” The more experienced Agutter, who plays the chief nun, Sister Julienne, tells me her thoughts were rather different. ‘When I first saw the script, I thought it was lovely but I also thought, who on earth in this day and age is going to tune into a series about midwives, nuns and a really impoverished part of London in the Fifties and Sixties? In fact, Call The Midwife regularly pulls in more than eight million viewers and the past seven years’ worth of Christmas specials all topped festive viewing figures.

This December promises to be no exception, with the midwives heading to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides after responding to a desperate call for help. George, along with Agutter, Parfitt and Miriam Margolyes reprising her role as the redoubtable Sister Mildred, spent two weeks on the island, braving the freezing cold and a haunted hotel in their mission to create one of the most eagerly awaited Christmas specials yet.

‘It was unbelievable,’ she recalls. ‘Largely, unbelievably cold! I didn’t remove my long johns the whole time I was there. I also didn’t sleep because I’m convinced I saw a ghost at the hotel we were staying in.’

 Women are tearing down Meghan Markle for not behaving in a conventional way, while at the same time heaping praise on Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It is completely crazy

She leans forward to explain further. ‘The island is really remote, so we all stayed together in one hotel. Every night we would sit around this hugely grand table for dinner and there was always an empty chair. The owners told us it was for the former lady of the house. As the nights wore on I’m convinced that I saw her. Maybe it was a trick of the light, or something to do with the way the candles were burning. Or maybe it was something to do with the amount of wine we consumed, but I’m convinced I saw her. I most certainly couldn’t sleep and I’d beg the others to stay up with me. It was pretty terrifying.

‘Apart from that, the only other problem we had was the sheep. It was pretty funny watching the director trying to direct a huge herd of them. They were even more difficult than actors.’

George is good company. As she relaxes she lets you further into her life. She split from husband Oliver Boot in 2015, just a few months before taking part in Strictly Come Dancing. A romance then blossomed between herself and Ashton in 2016 during the filming of the Call The Midwife Christmas special in South Africa. The following year, after a difficult pregnancy in which she contracted ICP (intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy, which can cause the baby to be stillborn), she gave birth to their baby girl, Wren. During her pregnancy, she continued to work (filming of CTM takes six months) but was pilloried for gaining weight by Twitter trolls. ‘Sorry if my chins offended you, I chose to feed my baby healthily and not starve myself in a selfish act to look good on TV,’ she hit back at the time.

She is not yet ready to think about having a second child, she says, nor make plans to marry Ashton. ‘We are happy as we are,’ she maintains. ‘We are both freelance actors and we have to juggle everything, so at the moment we’ve no plans to have another baby. Not yet anyway. And we’re not married – things are good as they are.’

As easy as she has had it by walking straight into a hit show, in her personal life George has had her moments. When she appeared on Strictly, partnered by Aljaž Škorjanec, rumours went round that she was diva-like and bitchy. She knows such stories come with the territory but was nevertheless affected by them.

Today she says, ‘My problem on Strictly was that I found it very difficult to be myself. I’m actually a very shy person and if I feel nervous my default is to be very quiet and a little awkward and people misconstrue that. They see it as me being unfriendly and snooty, which I absolutely am not. I’m actually very much the other way, but again that is the appeal of this play for me. It’s all about the way we view women, the way we don’t like people behaving in a way that we see as not the right way to behave.’

George has so far not been lured by Hollywood, despite her high profile across the pond. ‘It can be a big risk,’ she says. ‘I have friends who have been in series that have been cancelled after one go. What I love is what I do here. I love theatre, I love working. I am aware I push myself too hard sometimes [she finished filming Call The Midwife one weekend and began rehearsals for My Cousin Rachel on the following Monday) but I just want to keep working. I want to surprise people.’

Interestingly, the one reality show she has seriously considered is Celebrity SAS. It would certainly be a surprise for Call The Midwife fans to see Trixie knee-deep in mud, scaling hazardous mountains and being subjected to abusive interrogations while bound, gagged and blindfolded.

‘I am tougher than people think and I want to show who I really am. I think I could handle it. Jack and I are huge fans of the show. My biggest fear was having to fall backwards out of a helicopter. The thing that stopped me saying yes was the fact that the dates didn’t work, so I don’t have to face that fear just yet. But I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t like a bit of fear. Fear works for me.’ e

‘My Cousin Rachel’ is at Theatre Royal, Bath, until Saturday. It then tours the UK visiting Inverness, Malvern, Cambridge, Sheffield, Chichester and Richmond until February 8

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