One of the BBC’s most popular dramas uses specialist period medical equipment to great effect. The BBC props department really went the extra mile to achieve authenticity.
Call The Midwife is set in London’s Docklands, long before it became a magnet for international bankers. Neatly dressed midwives tend to the slum dwellers and ordinary poor, and the contrast in their costumes could not be starker. This is absolutely correct for the period. Midwives, in the fifties, were very proud of their uniforms, as they set their profession apart from nurses. Smart, pressed uniforms were normal, not an affectation for modern day TV audiences. This kind of attention to detail and insight is only possible with research and the advice of experts. Terri Coates was an advisor to the series and offered her first hand experience of working in that era to the props and writers.
The drama was set in the Historic Docklands at Chatham. Those in TV and film will be familiar with the preserved historic streets there, which provide a perfect backdrop for period drama. The Chatham docks are seldom free of film crews, and are well worth a visit if you are interested in locations and setting the tone for a historical production. Mood is added to the streets by use of period details, such as the old-fashioned prams outside the houses, and street signs. The medical details are also precise, and provide real authenticity.
Sourcing Period Medical Props
The props for this production were sourced from a number of places, according to Terri Coates. The midwife badges, proudly displayed by Jenny Lee, the lead character, were authentic. The ever-resourceful BBC props department tracked down retired midwives and simply asked to borrow their badges State Certified Midwife (SCM) badges. Other props were tracked down through auctions and antique shops. Even the newspapers which the midwives use during the labour scenes are original 1950s papers.
Bottles and test tubes, crutches, wheelchairs and fabric screens on rollers all added to the period feel of the scenes. Fifties medical equipment was often stored in wooden boxes, clearly demonstrating the difference between then and now. Modern medical equipment is always easily sterilised plastic or stainless steel. Wood, rubber and fabric typify period medical equipment materials. Some of the pieces used in Call The Midwife were difficult to source, as the rubber had perished! You can find modern day reproductions of some items, but if you are intent on period authenticity then you may have your work cut out. Authenticity comes at a price however. Collectors of period medical equipment have pushed prices up in recent years, so prop hire is the most cost-effective solution for films and TV today.
Focus on simple furniture if you are equipping a fifties doctor’s office or clinic, and don’t forget to add some period wall charts, which were very popular at the time. A traditional Gladstone doctors’ bag is a simple signifier of fifties medicine, too. Check out our collection of medical equipment for ideas.