By Gen Terblanche4 September 2023
Life after birth in Maternal
Welcome back to work, Doctor! We’re sure you’ve had a lovely, relaxing time on maternity leave. That’s great, because we were going to ease you back in but we have a bit of a staffing shortage so you’re on call today. Oh, and before you go, it’s awkward but we always seem to need to remind our new mommies that this is a hospital, not a creche. Maybe ask one of the dads on staff for advice? They all seem to have their childcare sorted.
Goodness, you’re looking a little flustered. How’s the blood pressure?
It’s August 2022 in the new British medical drama series Maternal. And City General Hospital has become a short-staffed, overworked hellscape under the continued onslaught of the Covid-19 pandemic. Three colleagues and best friends – paediatric registrar Dr Maryam Afridi (Parminder Nagra), surgeon Dr Catherine MacDiarmid (Lara Pulver), and registrar in acute medicine Dr Helen Cavendish (Lisa McGrillis) – return from maternity leave in the same week. With chaos at an all-time high, they’ll be juggling their babies (careful, now) with professional and home commitments in a system that makes no accommodations for new parents. But at least they have each other, and a shoulder to laugh-cry on.
Watch the trailer for Maternal
Diagnosis and treatment
Writer Jacqui Honess-Martin came up with the idea for Maternal while struggling through her own return to work in the world of theatre (not the operating kind). “Speaking to all my friends, I realised that everyone else was having the same experience. Once you realise that it’s not just you, then there’s a system that’s broken somewhere. I had really good friends who were going back to frontline medicine in the NHS (National Health Service). I just thought, in my job in theatre, the world won’t end if I’m not at a hundred percent: how are these medics coping when the decisions they’re making are life and death?”
“We are told that it’s our problem to hold these systems up; that we have to step in and put all the stuff on our shoulders. Actually, it’s not okay to ask that of somebody given the current state of the NHS; it’s got systemic problems that are falling to individuals to try and sort. And it costs something for people to do that,” says Jacqui.
On the technical side, Jacqui consulted with acute medic Dr Adrian Kennedy, paediatrician Dr Kiran Rahim, and a consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon Dr Zoe Barber, who had tackled many of the challenges that her characters now confront on screen. “The medics then went back through episode one and said things like, ‘I hope that’s not the end of the scene, because if she does that procedure, she’ll kill the patient.’ It was kind of a relief to find out that you can’t just read a medical textbook and treat people!” quips Jacqui.
Cut to the bone
The hospital’s systemic issues come under the spotlight particularly harshly in Catherine’s field as a surgeon.
“Surgery chose itself because it’s the most sexist and misogynist field of medicine. It’s really hard and brutal, being a female surgeon – only fifteen percent of surgeons are women, something like one in seven consultants,” explains Jacqui.
Lara, who plays Catherine, reveals that not even her character’s usual iron-clad confidence can prepare her for the challenges of returning to surgery as a mother – two kids under the age of two can’t just be scheduled like everything else. “Some scenes I thought, ‘That’s dramatic licence!’ but another family friend, who’s an obstetrician, told me, ’Nope, I was in the middle of surgery once and my nanny couldn’t turn off the house alarm. So I got a call mid-surgery, my nanny was put onto loudspeaker and I talked it through with her.’”
Stitching together friendship
Many of the relationships we see in Maternal have deep roots outside the show. In real life, for example, Lara (Catherine) is best friends with Parminder (Maryam), while Lara’s husband Raza Jaffrey plays Catherine’s ex, surgeon Jack Oliviera. Shaheen Kahn, who plays Maryam’s mother, also played Parminder’s mom in the movie Bend It Like Beckham. And Lisa’s (Helen) daughter Cloe plays Helen’s baby. “She’s probably going to win the first-ever baby BAFTA. She was reaching out and saying ‘Mummy’ on camera,” jokes Lisa.
For an added touch of authenticity, Lisa went through a problem patch that forced her to bring her kids to set. “My five-year-old son, Joshy, came on set, too, when my husband (actor Stuart Martin) was working away for four months and our nanny had norovirus. Maternal is a show about women returning to work and we were all in a similar boat, being parents outside of trying to work on quite a busy filming schedule, which made it feel quite real. But I felt incredibly supported. The producers were like, ‘Okay, how can we help to make this work?’ Which is what doesn’t happen for the women on this show,” she points out.
So get the kids settled, give yourself a break, and see a show that gets it!
Watch Maternal S1 now on Showmax.
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