January 2017

 

Call Me for Call the Midwife!

I know I’m really slow to discover this marvelous BBC series about a team of nurses in the East End of London in the 1950s and 1960s, but I’m so glad I did! I really have no excuse either as nearly all my friends in Australia are diehard fans. I’m not alone in loving it – when the first series ran in 2012, it was the most popular BBC show since 2001, and it’s kept its dedicated audience for the four series since then.

This is one of those wonderful shows where you laugh, you cry, you sigh, you cheer. And it does all that while still giving a fairly realistic picture of how grim life was for women in Britain’s poorer areas before the pill and just as the National Health (universal health care) was kicking in after World War II.

Call the Midwife is based on the memoirs of midwife and nurse Jennifer Worth who worked with the nuns of the Community of St. John the Divine in London. In the show, Jennifer Worth becomes nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) and the convent is Nunnatis House, but it remains an Anglican community of nuns who work with lay people to benefit the health of the community.

In the first three series, starting in 1957, Jenny is the main character. It’s through her, originally innocent eyes, that we become familiar with the other midwives and the nuns and with the people who live and work in the close-knit working-class district where the cold winds of poverty blow close to nearly everyone. I’ve recently just finished the fourth series where Jenny has gone to work in palliative care and disappeared off scene. I have to say I haven’t missed her much – she was always the least interesting character in the show, to my mind.

Most of the shows follow a pattern of various intertwined stories working together – some sad, some funny, some contributing to ongoing storylines. It’s very emotional stuff, as you can imagine, and it’s rare when I don’t cry and it’s unheard of when I don’t laugh. So it’s a feast of entertainment where many flavors vie together to create a satisfying whole. Babies are born, people face illness and recover or die, children grow up, women discover their strength–although the characters are realistically depicted so not everybody is a saint by any means. Poplar, where the show is set, has a strong criminal element. Part of the show’s power is that people reveal the same range of behaviors, good and bad, that they demonstrate in real life.

And there’s plenty of romance – not all of it with a happy ending – to keep the wheels turning. One of my favorites was an ongoing storyline where one of the nuns, Sister Bernadette (Laura Main), falls in love with the local doctor, beautifully played by Stephen McGann. Ah, forbidden love! You can’t do better than that to increase dramatic tension.

Other favorite ongoing characters who all have their arcs to work through are the wise and generous mother superior, Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), and grumpy with a heart of gold Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) who adds that dash of tartness when the sweetness threatens to overwhelm. Among the younger nurses, we follow the romantic and emotional journey of midwives Trixie (Helen George), Cynthia (Bryony Hannah) and Patsy (Emerald Fennell). A very touching character is slightly dotty Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) who is a fascinating mixture of wisdom and madness.

Among my favorite characters are the very posh Camilla Browne (Miranda Hart) who falls in love, much to her snobbish mother’s dismay, with staunch middle-class policeman Constable Noakes (Ben Caplan). Camilla is largely absent from the fourth series and I must say I missed her and her awkward, good-hearted, good-humored contribution.

One of the things I love about this show is the relationships between the women. There are prickles and there are affinities – and as in real life, people change and develop over time, make right decisions and wrong ones, face heartaches and joy. There are some continuing male characters – a couple of suitors for Jenny; a very nice Anglican clergyman (Jack Ashton); the convent’s handyman (Cliff Parisi) who is generally good for a laugh, especially when he’s running his shambolic troupe of cubs; Fred Noakes; and the doctor. But the show belongs to the women – both as midwives and as mothers.

As you can probably tell from this, Call the Midwife is one of those shows that attempts and largely succeeds in putting life’s rich tapestry on the screen. It’s perfect Sunday night viewing – you emerge, having felt a lot and learnt something, and keen to enter this wonderfully warm and supportive world once again.

If you haven’t seen it, give it a go!