Stuart Macbeth talks to an award-winning Oxfordshire film and television producer

Producer Pippa Harris has enjoyed an illustrious career in film and television, winning more than 20 awards for her work which includes Call the Midwife, Penny Dreadful, Revolutionary Road, The Hollow Crown, Jarhead and Starter for Ten.

The 48-year-old former head of BBC drama commissioning co-founded Neal Street Productions with Sam Mendes in 2003, was named Producer of the Year in the 2013 Women in Film and Television awards, and has acted as adviser to the Liberal Democrats on the creative industries. In July this year, Pippa was appointed to chair BAFTA’s Film Committee, and in August’s Dissolution Honours she was made a dame.

It’s a sturdy list of achievements for a local girl, who still reminisces fondly about her 1970s Eynsham childhood.

Pippa’s family lived at the Old Brewhouse in the village’s High Street. Pippa attended Eynsham First School and then Oxford High School winning a place in 1986 to read English at Robinson College in Cambridge.

At Cambridge, she dabbled in student drama productions alongside fellow undergraduate Sam Mendes who had been a friend since teenage years, kicking around in such enlightening Oxford institutions as the Lamb and Flag. “By the time I left Cambridge, I knew I wanted to work in either theatre or television. In the end I decided on television, just because I liked watching it. I know that sounds silly but, looking back, you have to really love it to get into it.”

Applying for as many jobs in the industry as possible, Pippa secured a post as a receptionist for a small company who produced training films for clients including the post office and the Body Shop. Two years on she decided to focus on drama, and in 1991 she landed a script development job at Channel 4.

In the decade that followed, Pippa worked across all the major UK channels, contributing to Cranford and Bleak House for the BBC, Solider, Soldier for ITV and amassing production credits including BAFTA-winning drama The Way We Live Now. She became head of drama commissioning for the BBC in 2001, two years before deciding to branch out into production, founding Neal Street Productions with Sam Mendes.

In her role as executive producer, Pippa is probably best known for BBC period drama Call the Midwife, now in its fifth series: “The show took about three years to get on to the screen,” she explains. “It all started with the memories of a lady called Jennifer Worth, who worked as a midwife in London’s Docklands in the late 1950s. At first Sam considered adapting the memoirs into a film. But after a read through I realised it would make great TV.

“There was something very televisual about the way Jennifer Worth wrote about life. The book itself is very episodic, full of marvellous stories about illness and getting better.

“She created this incredible ensemble cast. They were partly based on real people, and partly fictionalised characters who were amalgams of people she had come across.”

Pippa took the memoir to writer Heidi Thomas, who shaped the material into a TV series which quickly captured the public’s imagination.

“What was odd is that it was an overnight hit. The very first episode got eight million viewers, which for a new TV show is extraordinary. There was just something about the combination of medicine, social history and nurses that appealed to a broad cross-section of people.

“We had a couple of names in the cast such as Pam Ferris and Jenny Agutter to draw people in. But almost everyone else was virtually unknown. It’s quite tough to launch something with an unknown cast, but it does have its benefits; an audience will have no preconceptions, and people really like to see new faces. If you watch a lot of TV there are certain actors who will pop up again and again.”

So what can we expect from the Christmas special?

“There’s a mixture of laughter and tears, and a very emotional story at the heart of it about a bereaved mother coming to terms with a baby she had lost years before. There’s a lot of comedy too, and edge of your seat tension. I can’t say any more.”

Among Pippa’s more recent ventures is BBC Two’s BAFTA winning The Hollow Crown for which she is she also executive producer. Based on the Shakespeare history plays, a second series is about to launch starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Hugh Bonneville, Judi Dench and Michael Gambon, and Pippa is hugely excited about the prospect of these further series.

“While I was growing up in the 1970s, BBC Shakespeare productions were one of the things that got me excited about drama,” she tells me.

“It’s incredible for kids to be able to access all of those plays on film. And we’ve been lucky to feature actors like Judi Dench, people who wouldn’t be able to commit to a long stage run.”

In 2007, Pippa fled the streets of London’s Holland Park to move back to Oxfordshire. She has lived in Bampton for the past eight years with her daughter and husband, screenwriter Richard McBrien.

“When we came to Bampton I thought it was absolutely perfect,” Pippa smiles. “It’s a community, a village with a huge amount going on. I’ve become rather a fan of the Morris dancers. Not words I thought I’d ever say!

“Being back in Oxfordshire is slightly surreal though. Robin Saunders who runs the DIY shop next to our old house in Eynsham is now a rival Morris Man, who comes and dances against the Bampton troupe. My loyalties are now divided.”

And her fellow residents don’t seem to mind that, having suggested the village as the location for TV series Downton Abbey, Pippa is largely responsible for the 1,800 sightseers who now pour in every week. “People have been quite nice to me thus far,” she concedes.

“Carnival, the production company, have been really good to the village. We’ve been trying to save our library and they’ve given us money towards that, and towards preserving the post office. They couldn’t have been better in terms of their support.”