NHS has transformed working class children’s chances, says Call The Midwife star

Stephen McGann said the NHS has made ‘all the difference in the world’ to working class communities like the one in the popular BBC period drama.

Call The Midwife star Stephen McGann said the creation of the NHS 75 years ago has transformed the chances of children from working class families reaching adulthood.

McGann, who plays Poplar GP Dr Patrick Turner, said the NHS has made “all the difference in the world” to communities like the one his character cares for in the BBC period drama series about a group of midwives working in the East End of London in the late 1950s and 1960s.

“When Call the Midwife began with 1957, we still saw diseases like rickets and TB (tuberculosis) – diseases of poverty and lack of vitamins – as well as the deadly infectious diseases like measles, polio and diphtheria,” he told the PA news agency.

Call The Midwife tour
Stephen McGann, who plays Dr Patrick Turner, with tour guides dressed as midwives at the Call The Midwife Official Location Tour at the Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“When the NHS came along, it not only meant new miracle drugs like penicillin to fight infectious dangers, but also helped to organise more general mass vaccination and screening programmes, and there were large scale health initiatives for children like free milk and vitamin supplements.

“It was a case of not only fighting the emergency infections, but making changes to the living and health standards of working people – with huge long-term benefits.”

Asked how important a difference he thought the NHS had made to working class people like the characters in the show, he said: “All the difference in the world. You cannot have a thriving society without the minimum of safety, health and security.

“Without equal and full access to heath, society simply subsists.”

Call The Midwife tour
Stephen McGann was among the cast members who met tour guides at the Call The Midwife Official Location Tour (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Without the creation of the NHS on July 5 1948, he said life for those in Poplar would have been “like life had been for these people for centuries. Brutish, unhealthy and short”.

“When the 20th century began, working people in the East End would be lucky to make it to their fifties. Their children’s chances of seeing adulthood would be a toss up. The NHS changed all that.”

McGann, who is married to Call The Midwife screenwriter Heidi Thomas, grew up in Liverpool and said the experiences of his own family help him to understand what life was like before the NHS.

“You had to pay, and it was hard for poorer families,” he said.

Call The Midwife tour
Rebecca Gethings (Sister Veronica), Annabelle Apsion (Violet Buckle), Stephen McGann (Dr Turner), Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne), Cliff Parisi (Fred Buckle), Georgie Glen (Millicent Higgens) and Laura Main (Shelagh Turner) during a visit to the Call The Midwife Official Location Tour in Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

“My own dad was born in 1924, and his dad died when he was only five. This left my grandmother with the task of bringing up three children without any form of welfare or health protection.

“Then there was a war for him to fight in. The sense of protection for his children under the NHS was therefore something he felt very deeply as a gift from the nation he’d served, and a chance for his family to thrive in the peace that followed.”

McGann added: “My father suffered rheumatic fever as a child and, without antibiotics, it developed to rheumatic heart disease. It eventually destroyed his heart valve at 60.”

The actor’s father, Joe, died in 1984 at the age of 60.

“A key thing for modern audiences to understand about Call The Midwife, is that it depicts a generation who knew very well indeed about a world without the NHS, antibiotics and vaccine programmes. They’d seen all of those monstrous diseases close up,” he said.

“We are more distant than that now, and don’t often see what a world without universal healthcare is like. Spoilt? Maybe we are.”

:: The 13th series of Call The Midwife, which will be set in 1969, will air in 2024. There will also be a Christmas special for 2023.

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