UEA alumna Jennifer Kirby was welcomed into Call the Midwife’s Nonnatus House at the start of 2017. Her character, East-End bar maid and ex-army nurse Valerie Dyer, is the most recent midwife to be recruited, following the departure of characters Patsy and Sister Mary Cynthia from the show. Excitingly for Kirby, this is her debut television role, aside from a small appearance in Holby City.
Call the Midwife first aired in 2012, and with more than six million viewers tuning in every week, it has long been a BBC favourite. Kirby believes the success of the show is in part the result of the “women at the heart of its drama. Sadly, there’s still not enough of that around.”
The show also deals with a wide variety of controversial social issues, including female genital mutilation, smoking, immigration, and the introduction of the contraceptive pill. Jennifer believes Call the Midwife’s ability to tackle these issues with warmth and sensitivity is a big part of its appeal: “it represents human nature and love in all its forms. It’s very warm, but never shies away from challenging and sometimes controversial storylines.”
The show has always been a favourite for Kirby, who told the Daily Mail, “When I was at drama school, I’d watch the Midwife every night.”
Kirby graduated with a degree in Drama and English Literature from UEA in 2010. I wondered what it was that first drew Jennifer to study here, and she told me that “the place appealed to me immediately.” Of the course, she said, “I loved how practical the drama course was but I wasn’t ready to let my books go just yet.” But living in a house with her friends – and the low cost of renting in Norwich! – is what she misses the most about studying here at UEA. “Just wait until you get to London!” she jokes. “You won’t know what’s hit you!”
After graduating, Kirby secured herself a place at LAMDA, the acclaimed London Theatre School, and went on to play the role of Elizabeth Bennett in Pride and Prejudice at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. Since then, she has worked in New York, appearing in a series of Shakespeare plays and for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Given that most of her acting experience has been onstage, I wondered if the move to performing on screen had been a difficult one. “It’s been challenging and exciting,” she reveals. “Both are essentially looking for truth and believability, it’s just with screen acting you have to remember not to push it out to the back row. Let the audience come to you.”
Though Kirby has gone on to become successful in her acting career, during her time at UEA it was uncertain what the future would hold. “When I was in my last year at UEA I was given a tiny part in the final year production, and I didn’t get into any drama schools. But that didn’t mean anything at all,” she reveals. I asked what advice she would give to aspiring UEA actors and actresses, and it seems that keeping an open mind, a relaxed attitude, and not giving up is key: “Life takes you all kinds of places, where you begin has little to no bearing on where you end up. Enjoy uni, let things go, be happy and don’t overthink things, there’s so much waiting for you on the other side, and it’s a completely different world.” Kirby joined the cast for series 6, which aired from January 22, 2017. She returns for series 7, which began on the 21st January 2018