'Downton is simply not as good as what we deliver'
It was 2015's most-watched drama in the UK, but does Call the Midwife get the recognition it deserves? Stars Judy Parfitt, Pam Ferris and Jenny Agutter on being overlooked as 'gentle' TV, the rarity of a female-led team and being better than their rivals.
It's a mark of the popularity of BBC One drama Call The Midwife that a month before the start of the fifth series, the Beeb's director general Tony Hall announced a sixth outing for the Sixties-set show. It was a happy moment for the cast.
"As actors, you always hope it's going to be successful, but it's a lovely feeling when the audience really takes to you and you know that your work is being appreciated," says Pam Ferris (67), who plays no-nonsense Sister Evangelina.
"We've all collectively been at it for millions of years, and you do a series and it dies, but this is very special."
That said, she is quick to point out that just because Call the Midwife is nostalgic and set in the past, it doesn't mean it should be dismissed as a cosy, Sunday night TV.
"I remember the second time we did a Christmas special, there were some write-ups that said, 'oh, a good old regular special from Call the Midwife', and it was our second special," adds the actress, who is also known for her roles in The Darling Buds Of May, Matilda and Harry Potter.
"I feel very worried that people don't realise how groundbreaking this programme is. It has a familiar, slightly nostalgic air, but we really do some gritty stuff."
And with the new series opening with a story about the birth of a thalidomide baby, there is plenty of serious subject matter to come.
Set in 1961, amid a period of social and personal change for the residents of Nonnatus House, the cast is confident about the direction of the fifth series, with Judy Parfitt (80), who plays dementia-stricken Sister Monica Joan, calling it "the best ever".
"There are some very powerful storylines," agrees Jenny Agutter (63), who stars as the strong and steady head of the house, Sister Julienne.
"That period of time presents more problems than you feel it should, because it should be a time for us [women], but it's not, it's a time for more problems.
"The writer, Heidi Thomas, has an extraordinary imagination, so she creates ways of describing things that are out of the ordinary, and I think that's what makes it exciting."
While Call the Midwife was the UK's most-watched TV drama last year, with the previous four series averaging over 10 million viewers per episode, the stars believe it's "slightly taken for granted" in popular culture.
"I get very irritated because it's all about Poldark and Downton and Strictly, and I'm sorry, but I don't think any of those burn a candle against what we do," says Parfitt.
"That's not out of arrogance, it's just out of the quality of what is there. Downton was very enjoyable, but when he got up to walk after being paralysed all the time and he jumped out of his chair, well ..." she adds, on the storyline where wheelchair-bound Matthew Crawley suddenly recovers.
She thinks she knows why the series is under-recognised within the industry.
"A lot of it is because there are no hunks, no cleavage and no sex," says Parfitt. "I think whoever is in charge of publicity at various places are young men, and they think, 'oh look, nuns and midwives', and elsewhere it's, 'oh, look she's got lovely big titties and he's taking his shirt off', and they've got something to write about."
One of the things that the cast most like about the series is the high number of women in leading positions, both in front of and behind the camera, though as Ferris points out, it is "very rare". "It's normally a lower percentage of women than men," she says.
But things are changing, especially for older women. As Agutter notes: "The TV writers are getting older with us, so it's good."
"And if you look around at the powerful women in various positions, that's now reflected in drama, literature and all other things," chimes Ferris.
Over the four years the series has been on air, many members of the cast have had unusual encounters with fans.
"I was at a really nice restaurant and the woman from the next table was holding my hand," says Ferris. "I couldn't eat my lunch for ages."
For Parfitt, whose character is fond of cakes, the reaction is more direct.
"In the supermarket, they say, 'the cakes are over there!'" she recalls with a laugh. "In the earlier episodes, she was very light-fingered, and I went in one shop and the chap turned and said, 'lock everything up - she's here!'"
By and large, the feedback from fans is interesting.
"When people approach, they approach from a very personal level," explains Agutter.
"It's not, 'you're in that programme, that's exciting'. They're, 'my sister went through such and such', or, 'my mother was part of that generation', and you end up listening to somebody's story, which I actually really enjoy."
Nun-like serenity is easy to master when the cast don their habits and wimples, however.
"You always wonder why nuns have that slightly beatific look and smile nicely at you," says Agutter. "In fact, it's because you have no idea what people are saying, and you give up saying, 'sorry what?'. You just smile."
- Call The Midwife returns to BBC One tomorrow at 8pm