Call the Midwife star Stephen McGann reveals family history in new book Flesh and Blood

PUBLISHED: 11:00 02 December 2017

Stephen McGann is interviewed by Jo Burch, founder of Words in Walden. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT

Stephen McGann is interviewed by Jo Burch, founder of Words in Walden. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT

Copyright © 2017 Celia Bartlett Photography. All rights reserved

Actor Stephen McGann was among friends when he came to talk about his new book, Flesh and Blood at Harts bookshop in Saffron Walden.

Stephen McGann with Jan Mennell, retired community midwife, who helped teach him as a new father, how to bath a baby. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT Stephen McGann with Jan Mennell, retired community midwife, who helped teach him as a new father, how to bath a baby. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT

Until this year, Saffron Walden was his home. He moved to the town over 20 years ago with his wife, Heidi Thomas, the writer of Call the Midwife, in which he plays Dr Turner. Their son was born here. He talks in his book about going to register Dominic’s birth “on the first floor of a small timber-framed building on Saffron Walden’s medieval high street.

The woman he describes as “of middle years and eminent heritage” glanced at him sternly and asked: “What is the name that you would like your child to go through life with?”

On Monday, November 20, he was interviewed by Jo Burch, founder of the literary festival Words in Walden. Except the answers he gave to each question were so amusing, engaging and sweeping that she kept saying he had already answered the next four.

His book is subtitled A History of My Family in Seven Maladies. It is the story of survival. Somehow, the McGanns survived the Irish famine in the 1840s only to lose babies to starvation and sickness after arriving in Liverpool. The slums they lived in were so bad, Parliament passed the 1846 Liverpool Sanitary Act but somehow, again having survived the famine, ultimately the McGanns had more babies and some survived the filth.

Stephen McGann points to the picture that only won second prize in the Butlin's Happy Families competition to his mother's eternal chagrin. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT Stephen McGann points to the picture that only won second prize in the Butlin's Happy Families competition to his mother's eternal chagrin. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT

Diseases, he says are like the baddie in drama. “The baddie is the best part, the baddie hardly ever gets cut out of a film because that role is much more useful than a dull hero”. It’s the same with history, he says, it’s the bad things that force change.

As an actor looking back at his family history he wanted to know, as actor does, how test and challenge - an tragedy changed people. When the McGann babies perished in Liverpool of starvation in the 1860s and 1870s “They were living near the second port of the British Empire, in a docklands slum where the wealth and food of five continents was unloaded and yet they died of stavation.”

It is always the story of escape. In 1912, Joseph McGann, working in the boiler room, is one of the last men to leave the Titanic and lives to tell the tale to The Yorkshire Post, where Stephen finds it 100 years later.

His Uncle Billy survives a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Borneo. Demobbed as just a bag of bones, he has learned to eat anything. In the 1960a, he amuses his nephews by eating tulips and daffodils and banana skins. When they ask the other adults how he does it, they only whisper “the war”.

Stephen McGann with Maggie and Nigel Wood, whose daughter Karen was nanny to his young son Dominic. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT Stephen McGann with Maggie and Nigel Wood, whose daughter Karen was nanny to his young son Dominic. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT

At the D Day Landings, Stephen’s father Joe gets blasted with shrapnel. Instinctively, he turns so it hits his side. He lives because of a clerical error. He is sent home to Leicester Infirmary not Liverpool. Only a few hospitals had the new miracle cure, penicillin (reserved exclusively for servicemen) and Leicester was one. As Stephen said: “Before then, back to the ancient Greek wars and before, soldiers died of their wounds.”

Stephen himself is alive he says by a fluke. He and his brother Paul were at Hillsborough on April 15 1989. “One’s place in the ground depended on the final digit of a serial number on your season ticket. Ours entitled us to seats.”

The book is a serious exploration of how, as he says, his family have gone in 1880 “from anonymous members of a poor, diseased enclave of Irish exiles who can’t write their surnames to a family whose surname will be written on films posters and in newspapers.” What changed in 100 years. The answer is the nation. As Stephen says he was born “after Atlee but before the computer chip”.

Now his own life his history, he tells the packed audience at Harts: “Series seven of Call the Midwife is set in 1963, the year I was born, it’s covering things I remember.”

Even during a book talk, Stephen McGann strikes a dramatic pose. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT Even during a book talk, Stephen McGann strikes a dramatic pose. Picture: CELIA BARTLETT

He says: “My life is a gift from those who came before me and a tribute to those who couldn’t make it.”

Flesh and Blood, published by Simon & Schuster £20.

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