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Sherlock star Lara Pulver: ‘Maternal is political. No doubt’

Lara Pulver says starring in new drama Maternal has made her feel a deep connection to under-pressure NHS workers

“I only ever wanted to be a surgeon.” “Then why did you become a mother?” This exchange, during the first episode of new ITV series Maternal, gets to the heart of a show that explores working motherhood through the lives of three doctors returning from maternity leave to work in the cash-strapped, post-pandemic NHS. As it follows trauma surgeon and single mum Catherine (Lara Pulver), paediatric registrar Maryam (ER and Bend It Like Beckham’s Parminder Nagra) and acute medicine registrar Helen (Mum star Lisa McGrillis) making life-and-death decisions on the healthcare front line while managing the stress, anxiety, joy and chaos of the early months of parenthood, the series maintains a warmth and humour.

But, says Lara Pulver – best known as Irene Adler in Sherlock – it also maintains a quietly political edge.

The Big Issue: How did you enjoy making Maternal

Lara Pulver: We filmed in Liverpool last year and were blessed with a beautiful summer. I was working on this idyllic job with my husband [co-star Raza Jaffrey]  and my best friend [Nagra]. My husband is from Liverpool, so every weekend we were with all his aunties, cousins and uncles. It was like a massive
family reunion.   

How did you manage to engineer all that? 

The job was the catalyst. I had to audition on a Zoom call so I asked Parminder, who is a dear friend and lives across the street, to read opposite me. Normally, you read with the casting director, but the pace of the dialogue Jacqui [Honess-Martin] writes is such that if there was even a slight delay on the call, the scene doesn’t land and I’m not getting the job. We had the loveliest hour doing my audition, then the next day they asked if Parminder would be interested in playing Maryam. A week later, she auditioned with my husband reading in for her, and, to cut a long story short, we all got the job! 

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So you all decamped from LA to Liverpool? 

It was like teleporting our family unit. During the pandemic, Parminder was in my quarantine bubble because I was pregnant, and Raza was filming in Vancouver. So she became my wife.  

Maternal performs a difficult balancing act – easing the audience in with comedy before getting us right in the heart with the emotional stuff. 

This isn’t what you’d think an ITV medical drama would be. It is smart and witty and pacey and heartbreaking. And it’s real. The last time I felt this excited and proud about a project was Sherlock.  

What did you connect with when you first read Maternal

I’m a mother of two. But I love my job. And for a while I felt like my job as a mum and as an actress conflict. I’ve been searching for a world in which they live in harmony. The nature of my job is I travel a lot and that was fine when the kids were totally portable, but my son’s just started primary school. So all of a sudden I feel like I’m pulled in multiple directions. I remember saying to Parminder, we have to get better at doing our jobs and our family at the same time. Myself, Lisa and Parminder had to navigate that road, which none of us found comfortable at times. Yet we’re all better mothers because we get to have our time in our identities as actresses. 

Were you able to feed those feelings into your performance? 

It is there without us even playing it. Because it is inherently who we are at this moment in time. Lisa and I have kids exactly the same age, Parminder’s son is older. 

During the pandemic, maternity services and antenatal care was something many felt was not considered by the government. 

There’s a really great charity called Pregnant Then Screwed campaigning on childcare issues. I found out I was pregnant during lockdown, so I had all of my scans and tests on my own. And I’d experienced two miscarriages in between my two kids.  

And once you’ve experienced that, going for a scan is not fun. 

Absolutely. I was so naive on my first pregnancy. The second I peed on the stick and saw a line, I never considered a baby might not happen. We told people straight away, I’d skip into every scan. Thankfully this time I was blessed to have a healthy pregnancy, but it is tough to go through scans on your own unless you have chosen to. 

What are your thoughts on the NHS and where it is at the moment? 

I have lived in the States and travelled back to England to work for years. In the US there’s a system of haves and have nots. Can you pay for healthcare or not? And it’s heartbreaking. I’ve always held the NHS in such high regard but I feel a turning point is about to happen.  

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So Maternal is very timely? 

It is political. No doubt. I have huge respect for the NHS and anyone who works in that world. We shadowed three surgeons before this job, and there’s a deep connection to why they do their jobs. I am privileged and proud to hopefully have honoured some of those people’s stories. A clap for NHS workers is not enough.

Maternal is on ITV1 and ITVX from January 16 

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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