GUEST POST: Why I'm Clinically Addicted to 'Call the Midwife'
I feel I should introduce myself and explain that I have a problem.
Like millions of others, I’m completely addicted to Call the Midwife, a miniseries adapted for BBC One by the playwright Heidi Thomas. It’s based on the trilogy of the same name by the late memoirist Jennifer Worth, who worked as a district nurse and midwife in the slums of East London in the 1950s. The setting is an Anglican nursing convent, Nonnatus House, and the backdrop is the hardscrabble and still bomb-gutted neighbourhood of Poplar.
The books are a delight (put them on hold at the library now; I had to wait two weeks), and the TV adaptation is faithful but not slavish.
It’s been called “the torchbearer of feminism on television,” and I tend to agree, if only because it unashamedly shines a light on the actual process of birth, long a taboo on TV.
With help from plenty of adorable newborn actors, stunningly lifelike dolls, and clever camera work, the audience can vicariously experience medical events in a way that goes beyond the classic shot of the labouring mother’s face - no cutting primly away to the wrapped baby and angelic new family. You might want to warn other members of your household before you turn on CTM, as fans call it. Moaning and screaming are par for the course.
The nuns work alongside lay nurses, and that’s how we meet our protagonist. The young Jennifer Worth, then called Jenny Lee, is played by the luminous Jessica Raine. Although Jenny is squeaky-clean as miniseries characters go (one patient takes to calling her “goody gumdrops”), her fallibility is established in the very first scene.
She’s never seen anything like the poverty in East London. She shows up to the convent, which she mistakenly thinks is a small hospital, after tottering through crumbling streets on impractical heels, and is greeted at Nonnatus by the senile and hilarious Sister Monica Joan, who entices her to split a coconut cake that is intended for the whole house’s dessert. She’s in trouble on the first day of work - I can relate.
Sister Monica Joan is just one in the rag-tag cast of fully realized, totally loveable but rarely idealized characters. Almost all the leads are female (although the men are all stunners, and their stories are just as good). Not only does the series pass the oft-flunked Bechdel test in the first five minutes, it does so in just about every single scene of every single episode.
Thomas is largely successful at putting the more expository elements of the books into the mouths of characters, like the straight-talking Sister Evangelina, who says (as if staring into a crystal ball): “Between 80 and one hundred babies are born each month in Poplar. As soon as one vacates its pram, another one takes its place. And thus it was, and ever shall be, until such time as they invent a magic potion and put a stop to it.” And with that, the stout nun, decked out in a full habit, whales on the kickstand of her bicycle and careens off to attend yet another home delivery.
But just as the books veer into sentimentality, at times the show serves up one too many helpings of cheese.
Although the episode about back-alley abortions was edgy enough to earn condemnation from Parents Outloud, it was a dramatically sanitized version of the story in Worth’s memoirs. Call the Midwife has a bit of a “but everything turned out all right in the end” complex, and ubiquitous descriptions of the show as “gritty” are a touch insulting to grit.
A little positivity never hurt anyone, but the lengthy voiceover from the “mature Jenny,” (Vanessa Redgrave) that bookends every episode seriously hurts my ears.
Cast members poke fun of this gimmick by periodically gazing to the heavens and grousing, “Shut up, Vanessa Redgrave!” in an excellent spoof video that combines Call the Midwife, Doctor Who, and the (also excellent) British hospital reality show One Born Every Minute.
Although it cries out for parody (about once per episode a midwife applies a stethoscope to a woman’s abdomen and chaos immediately ensues), I’m not sure I would want Call the Midwife to engage in the self-referential snark seen in so many other shows. Part of its appeal is its innocence.
Another element of its charm—and a major reason three million viewers tune in week after week, dying to know what’s next—is a romantic storyline of Thomas’s concoction. It stars her own improbably handsome husband, Stephen McGann, as the swoon-worthy, chain-smoking, oh-so-lonely widow and cute single dad Dr. Turner.
It’s my favourite part of the series, and many of its fans agree, if the number of tumblr gifs and fanfiction stories it has spawned is any indication.
The star-crossed lovers forge a friendship based on deep respect and mutual dedication to the healing arts. By the fourth episode the attachment has given way to torrid eye-sex the likes of which the BBC has not seen since Colin Firth’s wet shirt emerged from that Pemberly lake in 1995.
The trouble is, these two can’t be together. Society says no. Even to step out unchaperoned would be unspeakably improper. So all the acting that drives this delicious, slow-burning subplot forward is performed with meaningful glances, blushing moments; always implied but never fully revealed. It’s exquisitely executed and I can’t wait to see how it develops over future series.
Finally, I have to raise my 1950s-era wooden Pinard stethoscope in salute of Heidi Thomas and her team for creating a world so rich in detail.
The best works of popular history don’t make us nostalgic for the past we remember; they make us astonished by what we so quickly forgot.
Here’s an example: there’s a great little scene in season one that explores subtle class distinctions between the women of Poplar, by noting who gets fussed about their child peeing on the floor in public, and who doesn’t.
Here’s what I learned: In the middle of the last century, families often had two or even three children under the age of two. That’s perhaps 20 cloth diapers a day, maybe more. Most tenements in East London then didn’t even have hot running water, let alone washing machines. Diapers had to be boiled on the stove. Men didn’t help. It just wasn’t done. So it’s no wonder that many mothers let toddlers run around half-naked to save on laundry. Take a minute to mull that one over in your head.
According to Worth’s books, the advent of reliable birth control depressed the birth rate in the eight-mile-square neighbourhood of Poplar from 80-100 babies a month to about four, within the space of five years. The swiftness and completeness of “the great switch” as Alice Munro once called it, makes it easy to forget about how different life was before the sexual revolution. Call the Midwife reminds us, in a visceral way. It’s been a long time since I’ve loved a show this much.
Call the Midwife is currently filming its third season. Fans are eagerly anticipating the upcoming two-hour Christmas special. Especially me.
What do you think of the show Call the Midwife? Is it truly a leap forward for women on television? Join the discussion in the comments section, and if you liked this article, share it with your friends and followers! Want more from this writer? Genna's resume and portfolio is available here, and you can also follow Genna on Twitter.
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