4 mins


Make-up artist Olivia McMullen takes Lollie Hancock behind the scenes on the set of BBC’s Call the Midwife, as she shares what really goes into working as a MUA on one of Britain’s most popular period dramas


Olivia McMullen has worked on Call the Midwife since its 10th season, joining as a junior before being promoted to a make-up artist. We were given the chance to go behind the scenes and find out what a day in the life is like for a TV and film MUA.

The day on set

On the day we visited, Megan Cusack, who plays Nancy, had multiple scenes – meaning several looks for McMullen to achieve. With a 6:50am call time, the first stop was the make-up trailer, where McMullen started with heated rollers – to give the hair maximum time to set – before turning to the make-up.

“With Nancy, where she’s younger, we can have more fun with her make-up in the day-to-day than with the older characters,” she says.

While Cusack’s character has a slightly more “modern” [for the time] look compared to her character’s peers, tattoos were still years away, meaning McMullen must work to cover any visible ink. “To cover tattoos, you have to start with colour correction,” she explains, beginning with a red/ orange airbrush before layering a neutral shade on top to match Cusack’s skin tone.

The ’60s saw make-up used as a form of expression for young women, reflected in Nancy’s make-up. “Twiggy was the heart of the ’60s,” McMullen shares, explaining where Nancy’s exaggerated lower lashes and dark crease came from. “In ‘civvy’ [short for civilian] looks, we can experiment more.”

After prepping for the day, the MUAs, costume department and other crew members watch scenes as they’re filmed on monitors, keeping an eye out for anything that could cause continuity errors, such as a piece of hair in the wrong place.

In the breaks, as the crew resets the scenes, the team run on set to touch-up any imperfections with a condensed kit they bring. Time restraints while filming mean that quick changes for both costume and hair and make-up sometime take place on set.

The transformation from Nancy’s civvy look into a nurse is easier than the other way round, as the make-up design when “working” is stripped down and natural. “A lot of the midwives, nurses and nuns have been part of the cast for six or seven years, so their make-up doesn’t really change, and when they’re working, the nuns don’t really wear that much make-up.”

The make-up style required on set may have similarities to at-home application, but there are other factors that need to be considered. “With the 4D cameras that are used on set, you have to think about making sure you’re not packing the make-up too heavily, and how lighting will affect powdering,” says McMullen, who uses modern products to create looks reflective of the period. “I just incorporate these products to suit the characters and use my usual tools and equipment in a different way to get the results.”

Job description

The job goes beyond working on shoots, beginning with a week’s prep for filming. “We bring all our kit in and get ready for the shooting week,” explains McMullen, adding, “We get the artists [cast] to come in to practise, just to make sure the looks fit the character and they’re happy with their looks as well. Anyone who needs a haircut ahead of the shoot will get one in that week.”

Consistency is key when it comes to filming a TV show, so the make-up artists ensure each hair is in perfect place and make-up is the same from scene to scene. To keep on top of this, characters usually have one or two set looks, dependent on whether its daytime, nighttime or a work scene.

“Some of the characters have been part of the show for six-plus years, so their make-up doesn’t really change,” explains McMullen. “Obviously, the nuns in the show don’t really have extravagant make-up either. For new or younger characters, we tend to do our own research into what was popular in the 1960s, and we even incorporate some more modern aspects with a ’60s influence.”

Throughout a day’s shoot, the MUAs constantly take reference images on iPads, making notes on which products were used so that, if they reshoot a scene, the look can be recreated.

Career journey

McMullen did a two-year course at Brushstroke Make-up Academy, a college specialising in make-up training for the entertainment industry, where she studied Make-up and Hair for Film, TV and Theatre.

The academy encourages and facilitates work experience opportunities, often being asked by external companies and brands to put forward students. “I did photoshoots for John Lewis and Waitrose, a photoshoot for Carrie Hope Fletcher’s album, and worked backstage at a Toni & Guy show,” McMullen says.

McMullen then went on to land her first regular TV role, on BBC Three’s Mum. “Since leaving school, I wanted to be a MUA, mainly in TV and film – I’ve always been quite creative and enjoyed make-up.”

Working in the TV and film industry, unsurprisingly, is a lot easier if you know the right people. “I worked on EastEnders with another make-up artist who had previously done Call the Midwife, and mentioned to her that I was looking for a new role when EastEnders wrapped. She said she may have a job I’d be interested in, and a week later I got an interview.”

When a team was being put together for the new season, McMullen contacted the former designer to express her interest in staying on, who then put her in contact with the make-up and hair supervisor ahead of season 12.

Reflecting on her time in the industry, McMullen shares, “In the four years I’ve been working in TV, it has allowed me to broaden my skills and experience and work with some highly talented and lovely people. I love my job as a hair and make-up artist and to be able to see the work projected onto a TV screen makes me really proud.”

This article appears in February 2023

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February 2023
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