Telling people about Call the Midwife, I feel a little bit like I felt when I first starting talking up Downton Abbey. It was this great thing, and you wanted to evangelize, turn everyone on to it, and you’d say ‘you want to see something amazing, watch this incredible British TV series, Downton Abbey!’ And they’d give you that look, and say ‘yeah, when I saw it on PBS last year, I thought it was great too. Doofus.’ Such is the life of an inveterate Netflix person; you see everything a year after everyone else.
But Call the Midwife really is that good, Downton Abbey good. It’s a British TV series about a group of young women who work as midwives in London’s East End in the mid 1950s. In that pre-Pill era, London’s poorest neighborhoods experienced a population explosion, and Britain’s National Health Service did not yet cover childbirth. (Though they covered emergencies like C-sections, and other medical problems–at times the show feels like a valentine to socialized medicine. And why not?) Nor, really, did doctors make house calls; not for non-emergencies, which live births were considered. Plus, of course, anesthetics were out of the question. Poor women giving birth had midwives to assist–that was it.
So we follow the sisters of Nonnetus House, a convent of medically trained nuns, supplemented by young nurses trained as midwives. And that’s part of the dynamic of the show, the interactions between the nuns and the basically non-religious young women who live with them and share their work. The nuns begin and end each day with songs and prayer; the nurses look forward to their weekends, and what passes for a social life–not much of one, honestly, given their schedules and the fact that they’re on-call 24-7. The area they cover is very densely populated, dirt poor, and very large–they ride to their appointments on bicycles, weaving their way through a constant clamor of unsupervised children, tradesmen, and petty crooks.
The show mostly follows Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), on her first assignment straight from nursing school. Middle-class, from a privileged background, with a murky romantic past, she chooses to immerse herself in the lives of her patients, and becomes our window into the rest of the show. She quickly becomes close friends with Trixie (Helen George), a blonde wannabe-bombshell, Cynthia (Bryony Hannah), small, romantically unattached and intense, and Chummy (Miranda Hart), who joined the show in the second episode, and quickly became my favorite character, even more than Jenny. Chummy is from an upper-class background–she’s tall and clumsy and socially awkward–one entire episode involved her determined but comical efforts to learn how to ride a bicycle. Her hoity-toity Mom can’t imagine anything more for her than the life of a perpetual family failure and embarrassment; a plain, inept spinster, an object of family charity. But Chummy, once we get to know her, is a wonderfully kind and caring midwife, with a loopy sense of humor all her own. We’re told that she barely passed the midwife’s examination, but as we get to know her, we realize that she may be the best midwife of the lot of them, because of her deep and abiding compassion. And (spoiler alert), her blossoming romance with the neighborhood cop, Constable Noakes (Ben Caplan), proved one of the great delights of the series.
The nuns are great too. Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) runs the convent with grace and benevolence, but with also no mistaking who’s in charge. Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) is blunt, no-nonsense, outspoken and tough as nails. “No man has ever entered any room in which I’m delivering, and no one had better try,” she says briskly when a worried husband asks if he can be there for the birth. Sister Bernadette (Laura Main) is the organizer of the group, but also a young enough woman to, at times, envy the nurses their comparative freedom. Best of all, Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), an older nun much given to non sequiturs, perhaps on her way to full-blown dementia, and as such capable of saying essentially anything. She can’t be trusted with patients anymore, and basically spends her time on projects of her own devising, many involving astrology. She’s not just comic relief–the other nuns are constantly worried about her, with good reason. But where else, in that time and society, could she go?
Best of all, though are the cases that drive each episode. The marriage between a Spanish woman and her British husband, a marriage in which neither husband or wife can speak each other’s language, but which has nonetheless produced 25 (that’s not a typo) children. A young prostitute, mentally challenged, desperate to keep her child. A young woman, married to a much older man who she does not love, but who treats her with a heart-breaking kindness and tenderness, and his reaction (utterly forgiving) when her baby, turns out, could not possibly be his. Again and again we see it, the wonderful power of love, the tremendous courage of women giving birth, the extraordinary miracle that happens when new human life comes into this bad old world.
And I love the faces. Boy, the Brits are great at this; at populating a movie or television series with ordinary looking people (and with marvelous actors in even the smallest roles). American popular culture sometimes seems to think we won’t watch a show starring anything but fashion models. Call the Midwife visually is dedicated to the genuine beauty of, let’s say, unconventionally attractive people.
One tiny warning–it’s set in the East End of London, and at times you may feel like you need subtitles; the lower-class accents can seem a trifle unpenetrable to American ears.
Above all, Call the Midwife is a show about selfless service, about good women doing what they can to help out their sisters in time of extreme need. It’s just miraculously well done–superbly written, superbly acted and directed. It’s the warmest, most human show on television. It’s better than Downton Abbey, a show which I absolutely adore. Is it possible to write compelling, powerful drama about good human beings doing good in the world? Call the Midwife answers yes.