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Judy Parfitt

Danny Scott / 22 November 2021

The Call the Midwife actor, 86, tells Pam Francis she will never retire, why her feisty toy poodle is her best friend, and what we could all learn from her childhood in wartime Yorkshire.

Judy Parfitt | image credit: Monica Joan_Neal Street Productions/ BBC One

What’s your favourite Christmas memory?

When I was five, we were living in Scotland because my father had been sent there as an inspector of guns during the war. We were staying in a house by a river and I would wake up and hear the water trickling over the stones. One Christmas I saw a basket at the bottom of my bed. In it was a white puppy with a black patch over his eye and a big satin ribbon around his neck. I called him Scamp. It was just the most wonderful Christmas Day.

How will you spend Christmas this year?

With my son, David, his wife and my granddaughters in a hotel. For me Christmas was always a family time. If you lived in a village, you went to church and sang carols, and the family all gathered for lunch. It’s not what it was when I was growing up because families have become dispersed. I have two granddaughters: Annabel, 19, and 16-year-old Georgina, who has been staying with me. My son has a care home in Hove, and in Annabel’s gap year she worked there, and everyone loved her. I think that was a terrific thing to do before university.

You’re starring in a Call the Midwife Christmas special, and also in a new series in January. What’s in store for your character?

This is my tenth Christmas, and the busiest one ever for the nuns and midwives at Nonnatus House, with an exceptional number of expectant mothers. [My character] Sister Monica Joan has her own suspicions as to why it’s so busy! She also takes part in the hen night running up to Lucille’s wedding to Cyril. In the new series, Sister Monica Joan gets obsessed with the Eurovision Song Contest and Sandie Shaw.

Why is Sister Monica Joan so popular with viewers?

 I think it’s her innate innocence, her kindness and her struggles – and because she’s eccentric and obviously educated, she uses words nobody else uses any more. And, of course, she has a love of cakes and biscuits. It got to the point where every time I went to the supermarket, staff would say: ‘The cakes are over there!’

A longer version of this article appeared in the December 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today

How do the cast and crew get on?

All of us on set are close friends. We bond over our dogs – so many of us have them. Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne), Linda Bassett (Phyllis Crane), Helen George (Trixie), Annabelle Apsion (Violet Buckle), and even the caterer and wardrobe mistress. Not everyone brings their dog to work, but Freddie, my toy poodle, comes in with me every day and stays in my trailer while I film. Freddie is my best friend and is very wilful, very funny, very feisty. People have said, there’s a little person in there!

What is the biggest life lesson you’ve learned?

Growing up in the war, I learned how people just got on with life despite food rationing, bombs dropping, not knowing if they’d be alive the next day. At nine I vividly remember my father holding me in his arms as Sheffield lit up around us because it was being blitzed. Yet people still went to work the next day. Now everything is so at hand for everybody, they feel deprived if they haven’t got it. My family laugh at me because I still save string and brown paper, and make sure I turn off all the lights.

If you were Minister for the Saga Generation, what would you lobby for?

There is terrible age discrimination in this country. Opposite my house in West Sussex is a green area that had sunk and needed making safe. One of my very nice neighbours told the developers, ‘You’ve got to do something because there is an old lady who walks her dog there’. I know I’m 86, but I’m working full-time, I’m up at 7.30am and get home at 11pm. Why do I have to be labelled an ‘old lady’? It annoys me because they’re not seeing the person I am, just an old person. I’d make that a crime!

Do you ever think about hanging up your wimple and retiring?

I think about hanging up my wimple because it’s uncomfortable to wear, but not retiring! I’m surprised they haven’t killed Sister Monica Joan off. But as long as I can walk a straight line and remember my words, I’ll be there.

The Call the Midwife Christmas special will be on BBC One on Christmas Day and the new series will be on BBC One on Christmas Day and the new series with begin in the New Year

To read more about Judy’s early love of acting and why she is an ambassador for Dementia UK – subscribe to Saga Magazine.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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