Q and A with Stephen McGann


Stephen McGann, better known for his role as Dr Patrick Turner in television’s Call the Midwife, talks about his new book Flesh and Blood: A history of my family in seven maladies, ahead of his visit to Jarrold - and it's a surprising tale of survival, death and sheer luck

We are delighted to welcome you to Jarrold this Thursday (10th August), what can we expect from the evening?

Lots of chat! I love nothing better than talking to an audience directly (it’s getting me to shut up that’s the problem!). But there’s an extra significance to the evening for me. Thursday is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to talk live about the many personal family themes in my book. It'll be interesting to share these thoughts and feelings directly with others.

Many people will know you as Dr. Patrick Turner from Call the Midwife – how many series have you been in now? And what is filming like?

We’re currently filming series seven, which is amazing. And I really do mean currently! Once I leave Jarrold I have to whizz back to film early the next morning in London! The job is truly wonderful - a privilege to film. The stories are so emotional and involving that the actors can’t help but be affected by them. This sense of universal community united by a shared joy and pain was something that undoubtedly influenced the tone of my book.

Your character in Call the Midwife is very much interested in science and medicine – and you are too in real life having a masters degree in science communication from Imperial College London. Is this a case of life mimicking art?

A wonderful case of just that! I already had an academic interest in the relationship between medicine and popular society when the opportunity to play Dr Turner came along. I suddenly found myself playing a fictional medic in a globally successful TV drama, and communicating the human side of human care to millions of people. It’s been fascinating to explore how our society feels and responds to representations of its medical past, and how it shapes the kind of people we are.

And this link continues in your new book Flesh and Blood: A history of my family in seven maladies – why did you decide to write your family memoir in this way?

My approach to the book came out of my long fascination with genealogy - the study of my family tree. As I researched my poor ancestors, I was struck by the constant influence of health and disease on their lives and aspirations. It was as if health was the single great antagonist in the drama of their lives: the wicked character that drove each hero to succeed or fail. This chimed with my academic interest in social medicine in society, and so I developed the idea of a seven-part history of my family over the last one hundred and fifty years, but told through the afflictions or maladies that they confronted along the way. A key additional element in this approach was my long career as an actor. I saw the loves, lives and struggles of my ancestors like one might see a cast of characters in a drama - how did their afflictions make them feel as people? How did they respond to what life threw at them? How did their maladies help to tell the wider story of their lives?

Your book has been compared to the style of TV programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are, which are proving popular as people love to look into their (and others) ancestry – have you always had a keen interest in your family history?

Yes! I started looking into my family history when I was a callow seventeen-year-old! I was the one in my family that took an interest in our ancestry, but from the beginning it was a rather difficult family to trace. The McGanns descended from very poor itinerant immigrants, and so the documentary information on them was very sketchy. It’s taken me my whole lifetime to build up a proper picture of their lives - and it’s still a work in progress.

Tell us three revelations from your book?

I'm actually surprised at how many revelations - great and small - I’ve written about in my book. Here are three:

My great uncle was a survivor of the Titanic - escaping on the last lifeboat to leave the stricken ship, and jumping into the ocean with the captain himself.

My grandfather spend time on the run from the Australian military authorities in World War One for going Absent Without Leave. He escaped justice by re-enlisting under a different name, and was later awarded a medal for his service!

My mother tragically lost twins at birth back in the fifties, and suffered an unresolved grief for decades as a result. She traced their anonymous grave later in her life, and the experience allowed her to find a remarkable and very personal closure.

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