Speaking at the Radio Times Festival, Heidi said the baby will be born in episode one and the storyline will continue as a thread throughout the series as dots are joined together between the drug and its side-effects.
The Call The Midwife cast (BBC)
“Since the series became established, people were saying to us when are you going to do thalidomide? It was something we wanted to do with the utmost sense of emotional and historic responsibility,” she said.
She revealed the sensitive plot line has been two years in the making.
“What really shocked me when I started doing my research two years ago was that thalidomide babies were being born, but it was a couple of years before people started to join the dots, and that’s a trajectory that our drama plotline reflects,” she continued.
— Adam Lannon (@adamlannon) September 26, 2015
“We have a thalidomide baby born in the first episode of this series and as the series unfolds more questions are being asked. What you’ll find when this episode is shown is that the word thalidomide is never used or referenced because nobody understands the connection or cause at that point.”
The drug first made an appearance in Call The Midwife at the end of the last series, when Doctor Turner (Stephen McGann) prescribed it to a pregnant woman suffering from hyperemesis gravidarum, an extreme form of morning sickness that recently affected the Duchess of Cambridge during her pregnancies.
— Stephen McGann (@StephenMcGann) September 26, 2015
Thalidomide was created by a pharmaceutical company in West Germany in 1953 as a sedative and mild sleeping pill. It was licensed for use in the UK in April 1958 and soon began to be prescribed to pregnant women to alleviate nausea and morning sickness.
It was subsequently found to cause harm to the development of foetuses and cause disabilities, ranging from extra digits to short or unformed limbs. Other side-effects include blindness, deafness and malformed eyes, kidneys and hearts.
The dangers of the drug began to emerge in the late 1950s and 60s when more than 10,000 children worldwide were born with thalidomide-related disabilities. The drug was withdrawn from the UK in 1961 and the Government issued a warning in 1962.
Call the Midwife’s executive producer Pippa Harris said the story still has relevance today.
“It’s a story which is still going on to this day. It’s not something set in aspic in the past. I think we feel very strongly that it’s an issue that should still be in the public consciousness and discussed and as much done as possible.
“You’ll see the effects of thalidomide the drug on the mothers and on the children they gave birth to, but also on their families and on the people who prescribed it. It’s very easy to overlook the fact that clearly for the doctor who prescribed this drug for the women, that’s a pretty devastating discovery when they realise what they’ve done,” Pippa said.
A specially made prosthetic baby was used to film the scene, which Heidi said was treated with special attention by the cast.
“To be honest, we’re [usually] a bit casual with [prosthetic babies]. The midwife shouts at us: ‘Stop carrying that baby round by its arm!’” she said.
Helen George as Trixie Franklin (BBC)
“But this little baby affected by thalidomide is called baby Susan in the script and we called her Baby Susan. At every point in the birthing sequences, somebody would be holding her. She never went back in the box, did she? She was like this very special child to all of us. We felt very privileged to have her with us,” she continued.
In the episode, the baby will be delivered by Emerald Fennell, who plays midwife Patsy Mount.
“As with all our births, it was incredibly moving, and I think of all of the days that we filmed a birth, it was the most sombre and respectful,” Emerald said.
Series five of the drama will return later this year.