Helen George interview: ‘There are so many talented people… I had to know I wasn’t doing a disservice to anybody’

Tim Bano
Thursday, March 28, 2024

She may be best known for playing Trixie in TV’s Call the Midwife, but Helen George, now starring as Anna Leonowens in The King and I, also has a background in Musical Theatre. Tim Bano meets her, and discovers a steely determination to defy stereotypes and carve out a career that feels meaningful and authentic – whether onstage or onscreen

Helen George (photo: Hugo Glendinning)
Helen George (photo: Hugo Glendinning)

It’s a drizzly Friday night in Eastbourne. A sharp wind blows across the beaches, the bars are filling with office Christmas parties, while at the vast modernist Congress Theatre crowds gather for a pre-Christmas treat. After a blazing Broadway run in 2015 and a West End transfer in 2018, Bartlett Sher’s opulent revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, with towering sets and gowns that weigh almost 5kg, set off on a UK tour in January 2023. And as the curtain rises in Eastbourne a familiar face strides onto the stage and sings ‘I Whistle a Happy Tune’ in a powerful mezzo-soprano.

‘Isn’t she from Call the Midwife?’ a woman whispers loudly to her friend as she sucks a peppermint. She’s right. That resonant operatic voice belongs to Helen George, known to millions as Nurse Trixie – loveable, troubled and blonde – in the enduring BBC series. After more than a decade in that role, few people are aware of George’s Musical Theatre chops – her Royal Academy training, her years in West End and touring ensembles – and for George herself, returning to musicals after a long hiatus has been quite a challenge.

‘I’ve been almost starting from scratch,’ she explains. ‘I started singing lessons before Christmas in 2022. I’ve been getting my voice back and retraining it. Although I’ve done bits of singing, I haven’t had a consistent singing teacher over the last 10 years. I haven’t had that regular check-in on my voice. There are techniques I can come back to, but there are also bad habits you pick up, so actually you’ve got to just forget everything and start again.’

Helen George

Helen George as Anna Leonowens

The role of Anna Leonowens, the woman who became governess to the children of Siam’s King Mongkut in the mid-19th century, is far from easy. There are big chorus numbers like ‘Getting to Know You’, exposing solos like ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ and rousing duets like ‘Shall We Dance?’ – songs which many of the audience will know intimately. There’s also a script which has pages and pages of speeches.

‘It’s a really big part. She doesn’t shut up. She’s always talking or singing. Had this been 15 years ago I would have been fearless and arrogant as hell about it, because that’s what you’re like when you’re young. But moving away from musicals for so many years and then coming back to it, I definitely feel vulnerable about doing that in front of a live audience, and particularly a Musical Theatre audience. You have to train like an athlete. When you’re doing a play you might have a glass of wine after a performance, but with Musical Theatre there’s no room for that sort of lifestyle. You have to keep training.’

Although it’s been 15 years since George’s last professional stage role in a show (High School Musical – of which more later), there have been a few singing opportunities since then. In 2020 she sang ‘The White Cliffs of Dover’ on a BBC show to mark the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Meanwhile, a few years ago, George’s friend Emerald Fennell, who had starred with her in Call the Midwife and is now dominating the film world as writer and director of Promising Young Woman and Saltburn, asked if she wanted to be part of a new musical she was writing with Andrew Lloyd Webber. ‘You never quite know what’s going to come out of her next,’ says George.

The musical turned out to be Lloyd Webber’s new adaptation of Cinderella, with a cast recording put together during lockdown, on which George sang the part of the Queen. ‘It was so wonderful because it was a chance to get out of the house. There was so much freedom too: they trusted me to just do whatever. It’s a ridiculous part, and I was allowed to be really silly with it.’

Filming commitments for Call the Midwife meant that George couldn’t star in the West End production, and Rebecca Trehearn took over the role, but as well as bringing her back together with Fennell, Cinderella also reunited George with Lloyd Webber.

Alongside co-star Darren Lee in Bartlett Sher’s international award-winning production (photography: Johan Persson)

Her first encounter with Lloyd Webber was another premiere, two decades ago, one of the highest-profile shows of the early 2000s and George’s first job straight out of drama school. After a promising start as a ballet dancer, she attended Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, followed by three years of training at Birmingham School of Acting. ‘After that I thought, I just want to home in on the musical side of things, so I did a postgrad in Musical Theatre at the Royal Academy of Music. It was fantastic, a really formative year for me and I think because I was a bit older by that point, I was really ready to learn as well.’

Multi-award-winning performer Philip Quast led a series of workshops while George was studying there and, impressed by her talent, he spoke to director Trevor Nunn who was casting Lloyd Webber’s new musical The Woman in White. Two weeks after graduating, George was performing – in the ensemble, and as understudy for the role of Laura Fairlie – in one of the biggest West End shows of the year.

‘I was spoiled by that being my first show, surrounded by the crème de la crème: Maria Friedman, Michael Crawford as well as Andrew and Trevor. I got kind of slammed down to earth afterwards where I realised, oh, the industry is completely different. But it was incredible.

‘When I was understudying I sat back and watched these fantastic performances onstage and I learned. I love Andrew Lloyd Webber. I love his music. I know he can be controversial but I think the score for Woman in White is absolutely fantastic. I really enjoyed singing it.’

Other jobs followed, including a stint as a backing singer for Elton John and, in 2008, something a world away from The Woman in White: a year in a touring production of High School Musical, playing Sharpay Evans. What was that like? ‘Let’s not go there!’ she laughs. It must have been formative in a different way, I suggest, to spend a year touring with something so different from the likes of The Woman in White? ‘Yeah,’ she says slowly. ‘And then I didn’t do musicals for 10 years after that.’

She goes on: ‘But really, it was a year-long job, it was part of a great touring company and I was surrounded by fantastic actors. And again I learned from them. They were so consistent in their performances in a way that I hadn’t been exposed to before. But I became very aware that Musical Theatre did things a certain way and at that point I just made the decision that I wanted to concentrate on the straight side of things.

It was tough, she says, to suddenly start turning down auditions, and to stay true to her decision. ‘But I got a bit disheartened by Musical Theatre, as many Musical Theatre actors find. There’s a difference even auditioning for musicals as opposed to plays, there are so many people on the other side of the table. It’s hard singing your heart out for people who are sometimes looking at their phones. So I made the decision to step away from that. I don’t know if it’s changed now. I hope it has.’

The next few years were what she calls ‘hard graft’: lots of shows in pubs, lots of short films. ‘I did all the shit jobs. I feel like I earned my stripes. There was a period when it was hand to mouth. I was surrounded by very talented actors who weren’t working and it was disheartening. But I was just very quietly determined and held my nerve, trod carefully but strongly in a very straight direction, and I was lucky that it paid off.’

The pay-off arrived, of course, in the guise of Trixie Franklin, a part which came about after a casting director took a shine to George. He got her an audition for Doctor Who, which didn’t work out, and then remembered her when casting Call the Midwife. She was lucky, she reckons, to come across a casting director who was interested in people from Musical Theatre backgrounds; she found it hard being seen as a straight actor with the likes of The Woman in White and High School Musical on her CV.

A decade later, she’s now finding the reverse is also true: people have preconceptions about a TV star taking on a big role in a beloved musical. The transition has worried George. Would she be taken seriously as a Musical Theatre performer when the public knows her as a TV actor, and especially for one role?

‘Lots of people don’t know that I did originally train in Musical Theatre, they don’t know that I have done musicals. So I was always very scared of the judgement that comes with it. I think there’s always been a raised eyebrow to that sort of venture. And there are so many incredibly talented people in the West End and Musical Theatre, so I really had to know that I wasn’t doing a disservice to myself or anybody else by doing this, but it’s always something that I did want to come back to. It’s something that has been in my back pocket. I’m aware of what the industry thinks of people. I’m always very mindful and careful of that. But the public will come along and enjoy the show for what it’s worth.’

So how exactly did it happen? What brought about not just a return to Musical Theatre, but such a huge role in a beloved musical, first on a big tour and then a West End run?

‘It was an email from the producers Trafalgar Entertainment. They said, “Do you want to come on tour?” And the more I talked to [producer] Howard Panter the more I realised how right it was. He’s been so fantastic, especially his belief in the transition back to Musical Theatre from doing TV for such a long time. It was the part that swayed me because I have been offered musicals over the years, and they’ve never been right. They’ve been some kind of fluffy, blonde-type character, that sort of Trixie-esque type. This was the first part that came to me that was really solid and strong and well thought out.’

It’s a part she thought she knew, but once she started reading the script she was astonished by how different Anna was from her preconceptions. She started diving into the history of the real Anna Leonowens, trying to uncover who she really was. ‘That’s what was so interesting to me, rediscovering her, really understanding her, stripping back our perceptions of the show and the film that’s on every Christmas and all the rest of it.’

That approach has also ensured George remains undaunted by the two strong legacies that come with the part of Anna: Deborah Kerr’s portrayal in the 1956 film has become legendary, of course, but George also takes up the role from Kelli O’Hara, who received a Tony Award and an Olivier nomination for playing the part of Anna in this production on Broadway and in the West End.

For George, the process of getting to know Anna was about forgetting those touchstones and instead coming to the character from scratch; stripping away the elements that have ossified The King and I as a big, romantic Golden Age musical and instead searching for what’s real, what’s historical, and what’s true.

‘I didn’t watch the film, I didn’t look at what has been previously done in this production,’ she says. ‘I think my Anna is very relatable. A lot of people have said to me: “God it feels so modern.” They’re surprised by a show that was written in the 1950s and is set in the Victorian era. I wanted people to understand her, like her, disagree with her sometimes. She has to be fully formed. She has to be a character with flaws and fantastic credibility as well. I looked back at the constraints within the society in which she was born, the fact that she’s a widow and her choices are either to marry some rich old guy or to make a life for herself, a worthy life, which is what she does, essentially becoming a political advisor. I think there are very modern themes within this show. Culturally she was ahead of her time. She was very passionate about embracing Asian culture. She was an advocate of the independence of Siam – it was the only country in that area that wasn’t colonised by the British and French, and she was instrumental in that.’

Over the years, however, The King and I has come under criticism for its depiction of Siam, its Orientalism, its use of made-up languages and the fact that the King has almost always been played by a white man. Although Sher’s production is careful to re-examine the racial politics of the piece, George still had qualms about taking on the role.

‘The first question I asked when I met Bart was, “Is it appropriate to do this?” You look back at the film now, with Yul Brynner, I mean, it was so insanely inappropriate. We talked about it very carefully. I was very aware that I didn’t want to be doing this for a sea of white faces. We have to put people onstage who have an audience that can look up to them and see themselves reflected. This show’s done appropriately. It’s very carefully constructed. It’s the first production that has put actual Thai language into use, rather than the approximation of Asian language that was written before. In ‘Western People Funny’ the wives turn to the audience and hold up a mirror to them, saying: “What you did was awful.” In a country where we’ve been criticised for not publicising this in our literature and our education for children, it’s really important that we know what we did.’

The curtain comes down in Eastbourne and the response is rapturous. Soon afterwards, George will be taking the show back to the West End, where it will run at the same time as the 13th series of Call the Midwife is broadcast. And after those two big statements of two different kinds of talent, what’s the grand plan?

‘To be honest, I think the grand plan is only just finding its feet. I think I’m just looking at good parts, whether they’re in Musical Theatre or straight theatre or screen, just because they’re good parts. What I’m enjoying now I’m a bit older is that I’m not just getting the girlfriend parts, the funny blonde sidekicks. I’m getting parts of substance, which is what I really wanted to find. Acting is acting. We should be able to do it all.’

This article originally appeared in the February/March 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today