Jewish actor’s splash is nun of your business

As a star of the BBC hit ‘Call the Midwife,’ which returns to US screens on Sunday, Ben Caplan has earned a following with a highly ‘convent’-ional role

Renee Ghert-Zand is the health reporter and a feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Caplan's stage work has included playing a Holocaust hero, as well as "Seven Jewish Children," accused by some of anti-Semitism. (Courtesy photo)
Caplan's stage work has included playing a Holocaust hero, as well as "Seven Jewish Children," accused by some of anti-Semitism. (Courtesy photo)

Ben Caplan grew up in a tight-knit, traditional Jewish community in North London, but now is spending a lot of time with Anglican nuns in the East End.

The actor has not abandoned his faith, but rather stars in “Call the Midwife,” a period drama about the lives of midwives and nuns at a nursing convent in one of the British capital’s poorest and grittiest neighborhoods in the late 1950s. The most successful new BBC One drama in a decade, its second season will begin airing Sunday in the US on PBS.

“We believed it would be a great project, but I don’t think any of us thought it would be as popular as it is,” the London-based Caplan told The Times of Israel last month from Los Angeles.

Though no longer as religiously observant as he once was, Caplan, 38, is nonetheless attracted to projects with religious settings and themes. He says he immediately saw the universality and spiritual power of “Call the Midwife” while reading the memoirs by Jennifer Worth on which the series is based.

“It’s set at Nonnatus House, this religious household. The religious overtone is the heart of what goes on in ‘Call The Midwife,’ ” he said.

‘I’ve actually rediscovered lots about my Judaism through my work’

Caplan feels honored to be one of only three male actors with recurring roles. He plays Police Constable Peter Noakes, who works at the local precinct and becomes the love interest of one of the midwives.

“He’s very different from me,” the actor reflected. “He’s shy and chivalrous, and he served in World War II and saw horrific things. He has a sense of respect for everyone.”

Caplan says he’s particularly moved by the relationship between PC Noakes and Chummy (full name: Camilla Cholomondley-Browne), a tall, clumsy and acutely shy nurse with a heart of gold played by Miranda Hart. “He is so devoted to her. He is interested in her integrity as a person, and is not focused at all on her physical looks.”

In real life, Caplan has been married since 2009 to a Jewish theater director he met through a mutual friend.

“We have similar upbringings and philosophies,” he said. The couple share a 2-year-old son who was born just a month before Caplan auditioned for “Call The Midwife.”

The timing was serendipitous, he said: “I was very much aware at that point of babies and midwives.”

Fatherhood has sharpened Caplan’s sense of Jewish identity, which he describes as mainly cultural. He and his wife celebrate Jewish holidays and light the candles on Friday night.

“We want to bring our son up Jewish and expose him to his background and roots. I was exposed, but not forced, and that’s what I want for our son,” he explained.

"Call the Midwife" fans have closely followed the romance between Caplan's police constable and a nurse played by Miranda Hart. (Laurence Cendrowicz/Neal Street Productions)
“Call the Midwife” fans have closely followed the romance between Caplan’s police constable and a nurse played by Miranda Hart. (Laurence Cendrowicz/Neal Street Productions)

Caplan’s own roots are both Ashkenazi and Sephardi. His father was brought up Orthodox and went to yeshiva, while his mother had a traditional Sephardi upbringing. As Caplan and his older sister grew up, the family attended synagogue on holidays and the children went to Hebrew school. Caplan had a bar mitzvah and went to Israel on a monthlong teen tour — his second trip, having gone earlier on a family visit.

“But I never felt the call to pursue it as an adult,” Caplan said of Jewish education and observance. Instead, he was bitten by the acting bug, and left high school at 16 to work in youth theater at London’s Young Vic. He then pursued a bachelor’s degree at the Central School of Speech and Drama.

“I felt I was mature enough to start my training, and luckily my family was supportive,” he said.

With his dramatic talent appearing early, his parents were not too surprised when he chose to pursue acting professionally. They themselves had exposed Caplan from a young age to the theater, taking him to see shows in the West End that his father, an accountant, had had a hand in producing.

“They saw me performing at the Young Vic, and they saw I had promise,” Caplan said.

He remains close with some of his Jewish childhood friends, “but drama school broadened my horizons,” with his work onstage and in film and television taking him in many different directions. His screen and TV credits include Guy Ritchie’s “RocknRolla,” as well as Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks’ HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers.”

His stage performances have included a recent run in “Dr. Korczak’s Example” at London’s Unicorn Theatre, where he played the Jewish title character, a Warsaw orphanage director who died at Treblinka rather than abandon his young charges.

“I’ve actually rediscovered lots about my Judaism through my work,” Caplan said. In particular, two of his acting jobs have focused keenly on matters of Jewish identity. In 2005, he appeared in the Royal National Theatre’s production of Mike Leigh’s “Two Thousand Years,” a play about divisions that arise in a left-wing secular Jewish family when one of the younger members finds religion. “I played the ba’al teshuva character” — the son who becomes observant, Caplan said.

For the actor, “it was a fascinating experience because it was a piece on Mike’s own Judaism and his investigating what it means to be Jewish.”

‘I never believed it was anti-Semitic. It’s a play that examines Israel, not Judaism as a whole’

Caplan recalled that all the Jewish actors struggled personally as they put the play together. “It really made me re-examine things,” he said.

He faced controversy when he acted in the premiere staging of “Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza” at the Royal Court Theatre in February 2009. Caryl Churchill’s 10-minute play consists of seven scenes taking place over approximately 70 years in which Jewish adults discuss what — or even whether — their children should be told about key historical events, starting with the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel and ending with the Gaza War in 2008.

The Board of Jewish Deputies of British Jews called the play “horrifically anti-Israel,” and The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg called it a “blood libel” and “the mainstreaming of the worst anti-Jewish stereotypes.”

“I knew it could be potentially controversial, but I didn’t spend time thinking about it. But I did want to be part of something that opened a debate,” Caplan said. He was shocked that people were up in arms over the play.

“I never believed it was anti-Semitic,” he said. “It’s a play that examines Israel, not Judaism as a whole. The two things got muddled.”

Caplan hasn’t been back to Israel since that teen trip years ago. He’d like to return in the next year or so, but will have to fit the visit into his busy schedule. The third season of “Call the Midwife” begins filming in June, and he’s also working on a couple of plays in London.

The actor doesn’t take his success for granted. “I’m really a blessed young guy from North London to be doing what I love to do,” he said.

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