Is ‘Call the Midwife’ Based on a True Story? Find Out About the Real-Life Women Who Inspired the Show

Call the Midwife is one of the most popular shows on PBS. The period drama tells the story of a group of midwives working in London’s East End neighborhood in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s captivated viewers with its depiction of the lives of nurses, nuns, and the women in the surrounding community as they deal with issues like miscarriage, abortion, contraception, poverty, racism, and more. And what’s even more fascinating is that the show is based on a true story.

Call the Midwife is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth

Call the Midwife is based on a series of memoirs by Jennifer Worth, who worked as a nurse in the East End in the 1950s. The first volume, Call the Midwife, was published in 2002. It was followed by Shadows of the Workhouse in 2005 and Farewell to the East End in 2009.  

Worth decided to write her books because she wanted to tell the story of a community she felt had been ignored. “So many of those great characters have stayed with me,” she said, according to the Guardian. “Most people in London at that time didn’t know the East End — they pushed it aside. There was no law, no lighting, bedbugs and fleas. It was a hidden place, not written about at all.”

Her memoirs, with their frank and compassionate depiction of life in London’s slums, earned critical praise and went on to become bestsellers in the U.K. Worth died in 2011, a year before Call the Midwife premiered on the BBC.

How true is the series to real life?

Call the Midwife cast
Call the Midwife | Courtesy of Neal Street Productions

While Call the Midwife is based on Worth’s memoirs, there are some important differences. For example, only a handful of characters have direct real-life counterparts. Those include Jenny Lee, who is based on Worth, as well as Sister Julienne and Cynthia. Worth knew both women well and remained friends with them after she left nursing to pursue a career in music, Radio Times explained, so they kept their real names both in the memoir and on TV.

But the names of most other characters have been changed. Even the name of the order of nuns has been altered. In real life, Worth worked with the Sisters of St. John the Divine, and order of Anglican nuns. In the show’s Jenny works with the nuns of Nonnatus House.

However, the surviving nuns who worked in the Poplar neighborhood with Worth say that though some details might be fictitious, the story is fundamentally true to life.

“I would say that it doesn’t matter that they’re inaccurate,” Sister Christine Hoverd told Radio Times. “The essence was true.”

Since the end of Season 3, when Jenny Lee (played by actress Jessica Raine) left the show, Call the Midwife has diverged significantly from its source material.

“I think the first two series … followed very closely my mother’s writing,” Worth’s daughter Suzannah Hart told the Telegraph in 2014.  “But the third series has strayed quite a lot and because they’ve used up most of the material. Heidi Thomas, the scriptwriter, is now making the material up herself. She’s doing it very well and very sensitively, she’s doing her research, but it’s not the same.” Hart added that she felt the show should have ended when the Jenny Lee character left the show.

However, Worth’s surviving family members agree that the show has kept with spirit of the source material and focused on the stories of the nuns and midwives, which they think is important.

Call the Midwife Season 8 premieres Sunday, March 31 at 8/7c on PBS.

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