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Call the Midwife's Stephen McGann says show's success is down to his long-lasting marriage

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After 31 years of marriage some couples might have drifted into a rut, become bored with each other even. But there’s no such fear for Call the Midwife star Stephen McGann.

In fact, as he lovingly enthuses about his wife Heidi Thomas – the show’s writer – he sounds more like a newlywed than someone three decades on from their big day.

“I cannot tell you how proud I am of Heidi,” says the star, who shares son Dominic, 24, with his spouse.

“We have a lovely relationship and I love the bones of her – she’s wonderful.

“There’s no secret as far as I know to a long-lasting marriage. But if I had to think of something, I’d say the secret to our marriage is probably the same sort of thing as the secret to Call the Midwife – that there’s no magic formula, it’s just love and sincerity.”

Stephen McGann plays Dr Turner (Image:BBC/Neal Street Productions/Coco Van Oppens)
He has been married to show creator Heidi Thomas for 31 years (Image:LightRocket via Getty Images)
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He certainly should know after being at the heart of the BBC1 favourite as Poplar medic Dr Patrick Turner since it started 10 series ago.

“The show is just about love,” Stephen, 58, adds. “It’s as simple and complicated as that. To make someone love you, to make an audience feel moved in Call the Midwife, it’s not a clever conjurer’s trick.

“It’s about people seeing something in that show that they recognise in themselves. They’re crying when they watch the show because they’re crying at a better part of themselves.

“And to go back to my marriage, the thing is love. You don’t look to some masterplan. You try every day, with the deepest of friendship, regard and love. We’ve brought a child up together.

“What I can say is that I’ve never loved her more than I love her now, in 31 years. I say it to the people in work, and I say it openly now.

“We laugh more, we share more, we are more fond of each other now than we’ve ever been and it’s got better and better and better.

“But I can’t offer some magic formula because everybody’s different.

Call the Midwife (Image:BBC/Neal Street Productions)

“My formula is just me and her. I met this person who is so good and kind and clever and caring.

“She cares deeply and passionately about her subject, and I care about her. That’s the secret to my marriage.”

Now, as the stars of the series get ready for their 10th Christmas Special, Liverpool-born Stephen has written a book to celebrate the drama’s milestone, Call the Midwife: A Labour of Love.

As well as sharing his own memories, the book hears from co-stars past and present, from Helen George and Jenny Agutter to Miranda Hart and Emerald Fennell - as well as wife Heidi, 58, who he first met in 1986 when he landed a part in one of her early productions, the award-winning play Shamrocks and Crocodiles.

And while Call the Midwife has gone on to be a massive hit, it’s far from what Stephen expected as the series began, as he reveals he was “moonlighting” as an actor during series one when he split his time on set with his scientific studies.

“Back then I was on a sabbatical,” says Stephen. “I’d decided to go back to university to do a Masters in Science Communication.

“I was very happy and then one day when I was at college in West London, I got a phone call from Heidi. She said, ‘You know we’re casting for this show?’ I said, ‘The midwife thing?’

“She said, ‘Yeah, well, we’re looking for this doctor.’ She said they’d done one session and hadn’t found him. They’d done another and still hadn’t found him.

“Well, I still hadn’t twigged at this point but she said, ‘Listen, the problem is this. The part’s quite small.

“It’s a lovely part but it doesn’t feature very much and all the actors we want to do it don’t want to do it because the part’s too small.’

“I said, ‘So?’ She said, ‘Look, will you come in and read for it?’ and I said, ‘But I’m at college!’

“And she said, ‘No, we’ve thought of that. It’s only small and we can work around your college. You can carry on doing your degree and keep your hand in as an actor’. And here’s the punchline. She said, ‘And anyway, love, it’s only a little six-parter about nuns and midwives – no one’s going to watch it’.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. Because far from being a little six-parter that no one watched, the period drama was a hit in 2012.

Commissioned quickly for a second series after millions tuned in, it has gone on to be watched and loved by ­audiences in more than 200 territories around the world.

When it comes to the show’s success, Stephen – who along with brothers Joe, 63, Paul, 62, and 60-year-old Mark is part of one of the country’s best-known acting families – credits his wife’s ability to “place a fist in a velvet glove”, bringing audiences from light-hearted scenes to the heart of serious subjects.

They are stories that families everywhere, including his own, can relate to.

“My mother lost twins,” says the star, whose mum Clare is now 86. “The first McGann brothers were twins and they died at birth. She had a condition which can be treated now but not when they didn’t have scans.

“My mum was basically a Call the Midwife woman. She was a 50s girl, that’s her era, and I incidentally was delivered by a midwife on a bike, so these things are real living history to me, like they are for lots of other people.”

With women’s experiences front and centre in the drama, covering hard-hitting subjects from abortion and stillbirth to the thalidomide crisis, Stephen, who lives near Cambridge, says working with such a strongly female cast and crew has been a privilege.

“It’s one of the most supportive, constructive and enjoyable sets I’ve worked on and I think it’s no coincidence right from the very top of production all the way through, there are women running through Call the Midwife like a stick of rock,” he says.

“To be a man working with these women is a privilege. They’re hilarious, multi-talented. They roll their sleeves up and solve problems and get on with it, with no egos flying around.

“I was brought up by a mother who went off and taught herself and became a school teacher. So to see a programme change the equation about female representation in our industry makes me incredibly proud.”

With the show spanning 10 seasons, Stephen laughs at how he and the other stars can track their ageing process on screen.

Dr Patrick Turner (Image:BBC)

“The changes in all those years make for quite sobering viewing,” he says.

“But I’m fine with it. It’s part of a strange gift that comes with a show like this. We’ve all grown up together and it’s lovely to have the chance to look back on it all.”

And with the 10th Christmas Special airing next month, Stephen admits even after all this time the nerves never go away.

“Right through the series we always watch the show together on a Sunday night, me and the other half,” he says.

“Of course, she’s seen it but I don’t get any sort of screening before it goes out so I watch along with the audience and I always have that feeling of, ‘Eek, I hope it’s good’. Then at Christmas it’s a classic.

“We usually watch it live with our extended family and I get these terrible butterflies in my stomach. It’s Christmas dinner and then, right, we’re on.

“After all this time it’s still always there, that nervousness, the willingness to fulfil this duty for the viewers and the knowledge that what we’re doing is a privilege.”

And with two more series already commissioned by the BBC, fans can rest assured that there is a lot more Call the Midwife magic still to come.

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