Popular historic drama features retinitis pigmentosa

Posted on: Monday 2 March 2020

We were delighted to support the BBC1 drama Call the Midwife production team with their historical research for an episode featuring a character living with retinitis pigmentosa (RP). Professor John Marshall MBE, one of our medical trustees, kindly shared his experience to ensure that the programme was as realistic as possible and reflected patient care at the time.

Look Forward editor, Jane Russell, caught up with Ellie Wallwork, who plays Marion, a young mother living with RP, in the episode that aired on Sunday 16 February.

Are you living with sight loss?

I’ve been almost completely blind since shortly after birth; I live with a condition called Retinopathy of Prematurity (a condition that can affect premature babies) and can only see light, dark and a few contrasts. I have very little useable vision and certainly not enough to get around an unfamiliar place by myself.

Had you heard of RP before the show?

A few of my friends have RP and some of the charities I’ve worked with before have supported people with the condition.

What level of vision does your character have in the show?

I played Marion as if she had no vision whatsoever. Realistically this could have occurred; it’s likely that she used Braille and I did not play her as if she had more vision than I myself have.

What research did you do to help you to understand the character?

I researched the differences between support that new mothers (and those with sight loss in general) had now and in the 1960s. I also made sure to understand RP as an eye condition, due to the fact that those with my condition (Retinopathy of Prematurity) would not have survived so many years ago.

Do you think your character was supported by the ‘system’ of the time?

I do not think there was enough help in the system to support Marion with what she went through. Though midwives and those around her could help, there was very little in the way of structural and ongoing support for a woman living with sight loss. In addition, disabled people were often treated with stigma and awareness around the needs of those with disabilities was sparse. The show has done an incredible job though in presenting Marion as independent and the nurses as understanding and willing to learn.

What did it feel like for your character – how would you describe how she lives with RP?

As Marion lost her vision early on in life, by the time she becomes pregnant she is used to the struggles of living with RP in a society which is not made for those with her condition. Though there are many frustrations surrounding her search for independence, she has an admirable strength of character which sees her through the worst of her troubles. She is resilient, stubborn and will do anything in her power to ensure that she, and those around her, are not held back by disability.

What do you think the character’s fears were?

Marion is prepared to be a mother and is excited about the prospect. However, it would have been natural for her to feel a little uncertain at the changes ahead. She must also rely on new people such as Trixie; as her last doctor treated her poorly. Marion must trust that those at the new clinic will treat her with fairness as opposed to patronising her.

What did you learn about the impact of sight loss at that time as a result of playing this role?

I realised how difficult it must have been even to acquire basic support. I am incredibly lucky that I was born into a time of greater acceptance and resources for those living with sight loss. I now have a more developed understanding of the challenges people like Marion faced and can only hope to apply this empathy to others still going through difficulties.

Has it changed your understanding/ perspective of those living with sight loss at that time?

I have a deep admiration for people with sight loss who have had to survive in a world which does not understand how to support them. Saying this, the episode shows that the kindest people existed not only at the time but also in the present day. Marion went out of her comfort zone to rely on the unfamiliar, which has taught me that the unknown is not so scary after all.

This episode of Call the Midwife is available on demand via the BBC iPlayer.

This article is taken from the Spring 2020 edition of the Retina UK Newsletter, Look Forward. See the full edition on our Publications page.