I’m a GOBBY piece! She wouldn’t say boo to a goose as a child. Now, after ten years on Call The Midwife, Helen George says she’s found the courage to speak her mind…
- Helen George opens up about her new role as governess Anna in The King and I
- The UK actress, 38, candidly shares her journey to being more open in public
- READ MORE: Actress Helen George debuts her new stunning brunette locks
Helen George is beaming. ‘I’m so excited,’ says the Call The Midwife star, who’s about to leave Poplar behind and head for old Siam with a spectacular new touring production of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King And I.
‘When I first graduated from stage school I wanted to do big musicals, then I made the decision not to do that because it wasn’t working out for me. So going back to it now is just joyous.’
She’ll be singing and dancing as governess Anna, the character played by Deborah Kerr in the 1956 movie with Yul Brynner as the King. ‘I love Anna, she’s so wily. She’s a single mum who’s trying to support her kid,’ Helen says.
The musical is based on the real-life story of Anna Leonowens, a British widow who survived difficult circumstances in the 1860s by defying convention to work as a governess for the King of Siam, which is now Thailand.
Call the Midwife actress Helen George, 38, will be singing and dancing as governess Anna in a production of The King and I
‘I admire her strength of character and her fearlessness, because nobody else has ever spoken up to the King, let alone gone head-to-head with him like she does.’
The King And I is one of the best-loved musicals of all time, crammed with huge show tunes including Shall We Dance? and Getting To Know You.
‘This is a fresh, un-Disneyfied take on the show, which I really like,’ says Helen when we meet in a rehearsal space in south London before the nationwide tour.
‘The set is stripped back but the costumes are still divine and her dress is enormous.’
Today Helen is wearing flat pumps, jeans and a vest top, a big contrast to the glamorous 60s outfits we often see her in as the similarly determined Trixie in Call The Midwife. There’s a wedding dress on the way too, as fans of the long-running BBC drama will know.
Helen as Trixie (centre) in Call The Midwife. The character is set to marry the handsome, wealthy and caring Matthew Aylward
‘It’s really nice to see Trixie happy, to see her thriving and stepping up to challenges and not leaning on alcohol any more,’ says Helen, talking about Trixie marrying handsome, wealthy and caring Matthew Aylward. ‘I’m really loving that the audience are enjoying Trixie enjoying herself for once, because she’s had quite a lot of tears.’
For now, though, Helen’s mind is on playing another tough, resourceful survivor in Anna – and the wide hoops that go under her voluminous silk dress are hanging up beside us.
‘You rehearse a scene, then you put the skirt on and think, ‘Oh, I can’t stand that close to you!’ she laughs. ‘Then there’s the corset as well.’
Anna would certainly have bound herself in tight, but how can anyone perform like that?
‘It gives you the Victorian sense of a woman, so it’s really helpful for playing the character, but it’s not your friend when you try to sing!’ she says. ‘I go a bit method and try to get it the tightest I can, but we’ll see whether I pass out or not.’
I hope she’s joking.
Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner as Anna in the 1956 film. The Stage newspaper has called out previous West End productions for insensitive ‘yellowface’ casting, but the most recent version has Thai and Asian actors throughout
‘The corset actually gives you support on the longer or bigger notes because there’s no room for your muscles to relax into, but in terms of getting the airflow through your body, that’s pretty tricky.’ Helen smiles. ‘My ribs have not gone back into place after pregnancy. I thought they would, but this is going to keep them out of place for years to come!’
Helen, 38, has two daughters – Wren Ivy, five, and Lark, one. ‘I’m sure there’s a section of society that would say I should be at home with the children,’ she says when asked about the tour.
‘My statement back would be that I have two very young, sassy, incredibly strong, confident girls and I want my daughters to see me work. I want them to see both of their parents work and be happy.’
Their father is the actor Jack Ashton, who used to play heartthrob vicar Tom Hereward on Call The Midwife. The pair fell for each other while filming the 2016 Christmas special in South Africa.
‘Work makes me happy, therefore my children are happy because they see me happy,’ she says. The plan is to have Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays off on tour.
‘I’m commuting to a lot of the venues so I can get back home after the show and see them in the morning for breakfast, take them to school, all of those things.’
It sounds exhausting. ‘Well, of course, but we have to do it, don’t we?’
She is insistent on that. ‘When I started playing Trixie it was one of the few television shows that had such a wide age range of women on screen,’ she says.
‘That has really taken off and it’s more fashionable now to show women of all ages. So if you’re going to cast mothers and people of the age that could have a child, you have to expect that they will do that and support them.’
She starts to say that she’s lucky to have supportive producers on the TV show and The King And I but stops herself. ‘I’m not lucky, it’s the way it should be.’
The family live in east London, where Helen says Jack is finding that not all the mothers he meets are as enlightened as she is.
‘It’s hard because Jack struggles when he’s with the girls by himself and he’s given advice, the assumption is, ‘You’re the dad, you don’t really know your kids that well.’ I think he feels that men doing daddy daycare struggle with the sexist comments made towards them. It’s not cool.’
The daughter of an academic and a social worker, Helen was born in leafy Harborne in the West Midlands in 1984 and studied ballet as a child before attending the Birmingham School of Acting and the Royal Academy of Music.
She was one of a group of students chosen to be backing singers for Elton John, and she sang to huge audiences at the Royal Albert Hall and Wembley Arena. ‘I guess people are interested because I’m singing again in The King And I and they don’t know me for singing, but that experience was so brief.’
The truth is that after such a promising start, Helen ended up working on the perfume counter at Harrods, which she says is full of auditioning actors.
‘I never let myself rest now, because I know what the other side of this profession is like. I have very talented friends who have had to give up. I remember working in Harrods, wearing three-inch heels and five layers of make-up, because they made you do that. They probably still do. What the hell? We’re better than that. Come on!’
Then, after a few small television parts, along came Call The Midwife, a big break she seized with enthusiasm. Trixie’s blue-eyed beauty and cut-glass accent were matched with a dress sense that shocked the nuns of Nonnatus House and a drink problem that threatened to drown her in the early days, but she has developed into a strong, determined woman and a hell of a good midwife.
Helen with Wren, Lark and Jack. She is now a patron of the charity ICP Support, and shared her struggles again after suffering with the same condition while pregnant with Lark, who was born prematurely in November 2021
‘The writers and producers invested in me as Trixie, but I made sure I was investable in as well. You have to want it to succeed.’
That meant overcoming a natural reticence. ‘I was a shy kid and I’m quite a shy person but I’ve learned to hold my nerve and to reinvent myself.’
She needed all that nerve when she did Strictly Come Dancing in 2015 and her private life suddenly became very public.
‘I was so naive. I still hadn’t told some of my family and friends that I was going through a divorce,’ says Helen, whose four-year marriage to fellow actor Oliver Boot had come to an end at the same time.
‘At the first press day, a journalist asked me about it in a whole room of people and it was mortifying. I have no idea where they got it from, because I hadn’t even told Aljaz [Skorjanec, her professional dance partner]. So that was a rude awakening.’
She’s talking about this for the first time, having protected her personal life fiercely for a while.
‘I did close down. I was exhausted, mentally and physically. I was very cut off after Strictly. There had been so much happening, it was just too much to emotionally take on, so I didn’t know what parts of me to share. I didn’t trust myself, I suppose.’
Was there a silver lining? ‘In some weird, life-lesson way it was strengthening to go through that chaotic period. I got to know and like myself better, because I knew what I could take and what I could achieve.’
She soon began to be acknowledged for her work on Call The Midwife, which has grown into one of the most popular shows on television. Helen’s confidence has grown with it, and now she’s able to speak openly about a range of issues, including developing intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), a liver condition that made her itch terribly all over while pregnant with Wren in 2017.
‘I suppose I just started thinking, ‘Well, I’ve got nothing to hide,” she says. ‘I knew I could help the charity that had given me so much support.’
She is now a patron of the charity ICP Support, and shared her struggles again after suffering with the same condition while pregnant with Lark, who was born prematurely in November 2021. She also posted a picture of the newborn and joked about the name, saying, ‘We should probably stop there so we don’t end up with a Goose.’
Helen also hit back at Twitter trolls who tried to bodyshame her when she filmed Call The Midwife while pregnant.
‘Sorry if my chins offended you,’ she posted in return. ‘I chose to feed my baby healthily and not starve myself in a selfish act to look good on TV.’
Right now, Helen’s mind is on playing another tough, resourceful survivor in Anna – which comes with a gorgeous costume
Thousands backed her and Helen has no regrets. ‘I felt a responsibility to speak up because pregnant women should be seen, we should be able to work.’
As we talk about her expectations that her employers will treat her well, she laughs suddenly and says, ‘God, I’m a gobby piece, aren’t I? Good! I hope my daughters will be gobby pieces too.’
Maybe it’s just that Helen has found her voice, like Trixie and Anna. ‘I’m good at playing gobby pieces. I wonder why?’
She does admit to having doubts about The King And I at first, though. ‘This is a beautiful family musical, but some of the original versions were culturally perhaps not respectful, with a vague idea of what it was to be oriental rather than a specific Thai-ness that is culturally appropriate.’
This goes all the way back to the King of Siam being played by Russian-born Yul Brynner. The Stage newspaper has called out previous West End productions for insensitive ‘yellowface’ casting, but this version has Thai and Asian actors throughout, including Asian-American veteran Broadway star Darren Lee as the King.
‘This is the first production to put the Thai language back into the script,’ says Helen. ‘I came to the conclusion that yes, absolutely we should do it. Here we have a progressive king who is asking for his wives, the women of his court and the children to be educated. If that’s not a current theme, I don’t know what is.’
This show is the touring version of the production directed by Tony Award-winner Bartlett Sher that won huge acclaim at the London Palladium in 2018.
‘Ten years ago, maybe I wouldn’t have been ready for a role this size, but I feel like I’m in a good, grounded place now and I have the confidence to do it,’ Helen says.
‘Can I find within me the strength Anna has to stand up to the King of Siam? Yes, I absolutely can!’
The King And I tours the UK and Ireland from 4 February until 1 July. For tickets and venues see KingandIMusical.co.uk
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