I really don’t care for medical shows.
For one thing, I’m squeamish. For another, I hate going to the doctor or being in hospitals.
Oh, yeah. And I’m kind of a hypochondriac, so anytime I hear symptoms for a disease, I start wondering if I have it.
So when many people started enthusiastically recommending the British TV series Call the Midwife to me, I was, like, no way, ick.
As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, it’s a never-ending hunt for shows to stream for my mom, who is house-bound and disabled. I’m in the room with her a lot when she watching TV, so I end up watching what’s she’s watching whether I want to or not.
This is how I finally saw Call the Midwife, and holy moly, was I hooked from the very first minute.
Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, it concerns midwives, some of whom are Anglican nuns, who work out of a convent called Nonnatus House. They service an East End London neighborhood called Poplar. Beginning during the 1950s (now up to the early 1960s), the series traces not only the personal stories of the midwives and their patients, but the many social and cultural changes, as well as medical advances and scandals of the time period.
Told the first three seasons from the point of view of Jenny Lee (later Worth), a newly qualified midwife, the series still features narration (by Vanessa Redgrave) as the older Jenny. Nonnatus House is headed by Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), who is loved and trusted by both the nuns and midwives. There is also Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), who was one of the first women in Great Britain to qualify as a nurse midwife. Elderly and sometimes confused, she is nevertheless beloved by the other Nonnatus House residents. Over the years some of the other characters have come and gone, but currently there are original characters Trixie (Helen George), a midwife, Sister Mary Cynthia (Bryony Hannah), a nun who started as a midwife, and Shelagh Turner (Laura Main), a nurse/midwife who started as a nun.
Each episode features at least one childbirth, and those scenes are emotional and sometimes even terrifying. The midwives also care for patients who are not pregnant, sometimes nursing the elderly, dealing with epidemics, accidents, and the extreme poverty of some of their patients.
Not only do the patients have to cope with illness and other challenges, the women experience mental illness, alcoholism, tuberculosis, their own pregnancies, and crises of faith. The residents of Nonnatus House support each other through their many trials and joys. The love and friendship the women share is the heart of the show.
To the show’s credit, the patients they serve reflect the diversity of post-World War II London. Cultural differences and prejudice are also challenges the midwives and their patients must frequently face. The series doesn’t turn away from controversial subjects such as illegal abortion, female circumcision, and sexual slavery, among others.
If this sounds kind of dry and is making you yawn, let me clarify that the writing of this show is phenomenal, and does a masterful job of weaving the issues in with the emotional lives of the characters. They achieve this by focusing the story on these women who work so hard to give their patients the best care and their babies the best start in life.
So many of these stories could easily turn to sap, but the way the show avoids this is a careful balance of matter-of-factness and optimism. As in real life, tragedy strikes unexpectedly, and there is little time to do anything other than deal with it.
They also build stories in a way that feels very realistic—for instance, before the thalidomide scandal hits, we are shown some of the most beloved characters confidently prescribing it to patients as a way to alleviate severe morning sickness. They do not connect this to the troubling trend of babies born with deformities until the drug is pulled off the market. Watching these good people realize what they have unwittingly given to their patients is devastating.
Jessica Raine, who plays Jenny, left the series after Season 3. One of the other popular characters from the beginning of the show has also departed since (Chummy Noakes, played by the wonderful Miranda Hart). It would seem this would have hurt the show profoundly, but it has not. This is a true ensemble piece. I can envision the series carrying on for many more years with an ever-changing cast.
Call the Midwife is a rare television series that not only deals with women in the workplace, but the main characters are almost all female. The show is written and directed mostly by women.
One of the most crushing scenes of the most recent season featured nurse Trixie putting make-up on a comatose woman (a side-effect of the brand-new birth control pills) so her children wouldn’t be afraid to see her before she dies.
Women caring for other women is a theme we don’t see very often on television. Call the Midwife does it with grace and genuine insight.