Her heartbreaking drift towards dementia as Sister Monica Joan in Call The Midwife has left millions of viewers deeply moved.
But nobody knows the anguish of coping with the condition better than actress Judy Parfitt – after nursing her husband through his final days with it.
“Tony had vascular dementia – the oxygen wasn’t getting to his brain because of circulation,” says Judy, 83. “It’s the most appalling thing.”
“Even when someone has the most dreadful disease you still communicate.
“But with someone with dementia, in the end you can’t because you’re not there. It’s like the person you love is physically there. I lost my husband but I found my child.
“You look after them and protect them as if they’re your child.”
She’d be forgiven for thinking of her beloved late partner Tony – who died aged 73 in 2001 – as she filmed emotional scenes on the hit BBC show.
But Judy – a star of countless TV and movies since 1954 – insists she doesn’t live her life that way.
“I’m playing a part and I’m an actress so I don’t think about Tony,” she says honestly.
“If I went through life thinking about Tony I’d top myself. You can’t do that.”
Viewers of the drama – now back for its eighth series – are guessing the future of Judy’s character Sister Monica Joan as her eyesight and memory fades.
But with another three series announced by the BBC Judy says she would jump at the chance to stay on – health and storylines permitting.
“I don’t know what Monica Joan is going to do next,” told Judy.
“That’s why I’m still playing her, because she’s a challenge. She’s so far from me. Sometimes she can be off the wall and a few minutes later she’s normal. It’s like walking a tightrope.”
It helps, too, that her character – the matriarch of Nonnatus House – has met her match in the shape of Sister Mildred, played by veteran Miriam Margolyes, 77.
“I’m very mischievous but Miriam just likes to shock people,” says Judy.
“She says the most filthy, outrageous things. I can’t repeat them!”
Judy says she also loves the camaraderie with her co-stars.
“I call them my girls. I feel like one of them. We have a laugh.
“I can be a bit bossy but age has to have some good things about it.”
The cast went abroad to film a Christmas Special in 2016 but Judy says: “I didn’t go to South Africa and there was a great deal of bonding going on. I’m looking forward to an occasion when that will happen.”
Growing up during the times depicted on the show, Judy says she’s often reminded how far things have come.
“I lived through this – and before, when where there was no NHS.
“It feels like it was 500 years ago but it was 50.” She says she could even have ended up as a nurse – if she hadn’t pursued acting.
“I’ve always been fascinated by medicine. If I hadn’t been so obsessed with acting I would have gone in that area.
“But being the emotional person I am now I couldn’t cope with people not getting better.” Of the disease that killed her husband she says: “When Tony was ill someone said they’d find a cure soon but they haven’t.
“It affects the person, but it hurts the family in the most terrible way.
“You have to raise as much awareness as possible and try and beat this terrible thing and be connected in that way. Not emotionally, as you wouldn’t cope.
“You never overcome the loneliness of losing your partner who you’ve loved for over 40 years.
“That never goes away. You just find a way of adapting and trying to keep
* The Call the Midwife Season Eight DVD will be available in stores and on Amazon from March 18.
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