Helen George’s lead in the ‘The King and I’ Musical

But close your eyes and listen to that voice – cut-glass diction, clipped delivery – and you’d recognise it almost immediately as Helen George.

Which is lucky for me as Helen doesn’t currently look like Trixie Franklin from her trademark role in Call The Midwife.

And that’s on account of her tumbling brunette hair, which has replaced Trixie’s trademark ash-blonde helmet.

The brown barnet has been adopted for her role as Anna Leonowens in the resumption of the mini-tour of The King And I.

A sold-out hit when it ran for five months earlier this year, the beloved musical will resume in Eastbourne and Salford ahead of a six-week season in the West End next month with Helen as its lead star.

“I’d been wanting to do a musical for a while,” says Helen, 39, “and I was waiting for the right one to come along. When this offer came up, I just couldn’t say no. It’s such a classical musical theatre role.”

The story takes inspiration from a real woman of the same name who became a teacher to the many wives and children of the King of Thailand in the region then known as Siam.

The real Anna kept a diary of her time there in the 1860s. It was published in 1870 and remains a fascinating snapshot of a hidden world emerging into the light.

Three-quarters of a century later, the novelist Margaret Landon fell on the journal as a rich source for a heavily fictionalised reimagination of her story entitled Anna and the King of Siam.

That was instantly snapped up by Hollywood producer Darryl F. Zanuck and filmed with Rex Harrison as the King.

Then in 1951 Rodgers and Hammerstein made it into a musical.

A story about Siamese royalty might have seemed unusual for a duo whose shows were all about Americans.

But in South Pacific, then their most recent hit, they had tackled the issue of racism head on.

The King And I was also about promoting harmony between cultures. “It’s an incredibly strong story with a wonderful score,” says Helen.

“Including songs like I Whistle A Happy Tune, Shall We Dance? and Getting To Know You. It was written in the 1950s, yet it still seems so modern.”

But it requires, of course, her having to wear a corset and an enormous blue ball gown which, as Helen attests to despite its fairytale appearance, sweeps away anything in its path.

“I call it ‘the beast’,” she smiles. “It weighs ten pounds and it’s incredibly heavy; it needs about five people to help me into it.”

Even then, getting on the leaden gown is only the first part of the endurance battle.

“I lost so much weight on tour earlier this year,” says Helen.

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“You have to be pretty fit to wear it night after night so you almost have to train like an athlete in advance. I’ll be eating a lot of protein over Christmas.”

This is in sharp contrast to the succession of fancy clothes Helen gets to wear as Trixie, although quite how a midwife on a modest pay packet can afford such a swanky wardrobe has never been properly explained.

“Trixie always has lovely coats and outfits because she wants to be someone different every night,” explains Helen.

“She’ll dress like Doris Day on one occasion and then Marilyn Monroe on another or even a bit of a beatnik with a polo neck as the show moved into the 1960s.”

Helen is no singing ingenue. Two weeks after graduating from the Royal Academy of Music, she was part of the ensemble in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Woman In White in 2004.

She’s worked as a backing singer for Elton John, she sang, “There’ll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover” at Buckingham Palace on the 75th anniversary of VE Day in May 2020.

And she was on the cast album of Lloyd Webber’s Cinderella.

But her latest role eclipses all of that by a country mile – and Anna gets almost all the best tunes.

The King And I delivers a visual feast, with dazzling costumes, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s timeless score and the magnificent Helen as Anna, what more could you want from a show?

The King has just one number on his own.

Yul Brynner, who played the eponymous role onstage for 4,625 performances, and starred alongside Deborah Kerr in the film, had limited singing ability.

His most memorable song is A Puzzlement, a high-speed patter number in which an absolute monarch ponders how to reconcile tradition and modernity.

Darren Lee, who will repeat the role he played on Broadway, compares it to the songs written for Henry Higgins to deliver in My Fair Lady.

You have to be able to deliver it like a monologue,” he says. “But it allows you to express a large range of emotion.”

The King And I remains a multi-generational musical.

“When we toured earlier this year. I was struck by the age range in the audience: from grandmothers to granddaughters,” continues Helen.

“My mother took me to see the show when I was seven or eight when I was growing up in Birmingham.”

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Earlier this year, her six-year-old daughter, Wren, saw her mother perform as Anna.

What did she think of the production? “She told me she loved the ballet but said nothing about my performance or singing!”

The two characters are separated by a century but can Helen see any overlap between Trixie and Anna? “Yes, I can.

I think they’re both bloody-minded although Trixie has a vulnerability which Anna does her best to hide. “Playing the two roles has given me more confidence because they’re both strong women.

I remember when I was younger and being approached by men on the Tube trying to chat me up.

I loved it when women would stand up for me.

Feminism is about equality, not one-upmanship. It’s about looking out for each other.”

She’s proud of the success of Call The Midwife, which will begin its 13th series in January.

And, as is now tradition, there will be a Christmas special (filmed in June) to be screened on the big day itself.

“I think it may be the most romantic, the most festive ever with one or two moments guaranteed to make you have a quick weep over your glass of sherry.”

Not that Helen will be watching it.

“I always leave the room when I’m on-screen,” she admits.

As the latest series begins, we’ll see Trixie with her new husband, Matthew Aylward, played by Olly Rix, who tied the knot in the Season 12 finale earlier this year.

But will it be happy ever after? The character has had a bit of a bumpy romantic ride down the years.

She nearly married handsome vicar, Tom Hereward, played by Jack Ashton, before he headed off into the sunset and, if the rumour mill is anything like accurate, her relationship with Matthew will not be without its upheavals.

There is even talk that he’ll be written out of the show although any query along those lines is met by a wall of silence.

Life appears to be mirroring art. In 2011, Helen met actor Oliver Boot, 44, on the set of the BBC drama Hotel Babylon.

They married the following year but divorced in 2015 a few short months before she appeared on Strictly Come Dancing.

“Going through a divorce is awful,” she said at the time.

“I’d been asked to do Strictly and, as strange as it sounds, I thought it would be a bit like therapy. I spoke to quite a few people who said the show really helped them through difficult times. You’re focused on this one thing: it’s an emotional journey. I was so naïve, I thought no one would be interested in me so that was a bit of a shock.”

In 2016, while filming an episode of Midwife in South Africa, her friendship with co-star Jack Ashton, 36, mushroomed into romance.

Daughter Wren was born the next year followed by another girl, Lark, two in November.

The couple parted earlier this year with Helen confining herself to saying: “Our two beautiful daughters remain the focus [of our lives].”

Helen leads a demanding life with two young daughters, a starring role in a major TV hit and now the lead in a touring production of one of the best-loved musicals of all time to juggle.

Does she ever wish there were more hours in the day?

She smiles: “Yes, it’s tough although I hope you’d ask the same question of a man. I have a lot of support. I’m very lucky and, of course, the girls do have a great dad.”

In the meantime, only one male remains a constant in Helen’s life. “Charlie is 12 now and I found him as a stray on the streets of Kensal Rise. He was just a pup. I’ve given him a good life since. I always take him with me to the set of Midwife.”

Will he be on the tour of The King And I? “Of course,” she says. “I might even be able to take him onstage underneath the voluminous skirt of my dress.”

  • The King And I runs at Congress Theatre, Eastbourne, from Wednesday until December 23; The Lowry, Salford, from January 9 to 13; and The London Dominion Theatre from January 20 until March 2. Visit Kingandimusical.co.uk

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