With the success of programs like Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford, The Hour, and Cranford, the UK has become the source for period drama. The latest BBC hit Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, tells the story of a young nurse, Jenny Lee, (Jessica Raine) who moves form a sheltered existence at nursing school to the gritty, poverty-stricken streets of East London in the 1950s, to work as a midwife to a community filled with women in need. She moves into Nonnatus House, living with a group of nurses and nuns, who all work with the community.
The East London of post war London is a grimy one, still recovering from the devastation of the Blitz and WWII. The streets are littered with rubble, and it appears as if someone in the background is always shuffling debris onto some sort of pile. The residents could be charitably described as “rough around the edges.” The poverty’s grinding, and the conditions of the way people live can be tragic at times.
In the midst of all this drudgery, Jenny emerges from her privileges, middle class background and has been dropped into all this change. She immediately welcomed into Nonnatus House by the nun in charge, Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter). Sister Julienne exudes competence, calm, and kindness. In Nonnatus House, there’s also other assertive personalities: Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), who obscures her good heart and kind intentions with her brusque manner and tactless demeanor; a fellow nurse, Trixie Franklin (Helen George), a blonde bombshell, whose covergirl looks and flirtatious manner belay a brilliant professionalism and kind heart; Cynthia Miller (Bryony Hannah), an intelligent and impish soul; Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), an eccentric woman, who peppers her oft-inscrutable speeches with moments of extreme lucidity, insight and intelligence. Along with these characters, there is the kind, slightly dotty janitor, Fred (Cliff Parisi), who has an entrepreneurial spirit, and the young and wistful Sister Bernadette (Laura Main).
Throughout the season’s 6 episodes, the audience is taken along Jenny and her journey. She grows quickly because she has to – in the first episode, she’s already dealing with an impoverished mother who’s about to have her 24th baby. While Jenny is the main protagonist, the other characters each also handle difficult cases that include a middle-aged woman whose pregnancy may not be good news, a woman whose pregnancy is complicated by a bout with syphilis, a teen hooker who happens to be pregnant, and a young musician whose pregnancy ends with tragic results. The program shows how important preventative, prenatal care is, as well as, how poverty upsets the playing field for these women. This show also works as a very-convincing infomercial for comprehensive universal healthcare, which includes good gynecological and natal care.
And while childbirth is the main focus of the show’s actions, there are other health issues that dominate certain episodes including cancer, dementia, and ill-health that plagues the elderly. There are also romance plot lines, especially with Jenny, who harbors a secret and a mysterious past. Each character has moments to shine – and the episodes shine most when the women are interacting with each other – there are wonderful scenes when the women sit around the table, eating and trading barbs and sarcastic quips, while remaining loving and supportive of each other. And the differences in points of views between the nuns and the young nurses is fascinating – the young ladies are more worldly, but also much more shielded than their older colleagues, and as a result, sometimes are judgmental of the rougher aspects of East London – particularly, when the nurses visit homes that are particularly messy, or when they’re working with patients that aren’t as well-educated or knowledgable about reproductive health.
And when watching a period drama – especially when produced by the BBC – one would expect high quality production values. Call the Midwife doesn’t disappoint – the attention to period and detail are unerring – from the music, to the costumes, to the set design – the look of the show is incredible. There is, despite the penury, death, and despair, a sense of optimism that creeped through after the dark years of the war.
The producers assembled a wonderful cast that perform the scripts perfectly. Raine, who looks like a prettier Judy Garland, has an open vulnerability, that’s soulful and lovely – but at important moments, she’s also able to convey Jenny’s steeliness. British comedienne Miranda Hart joins the show in the second episode, and is very affecting and touching as Chummy Browne, an awkward, self-conscious nurse, who proves herself to be a vital member of the group. Hannah, George, Agutter, and Parfitt all provide excellent support – and Ferris is funny and touching in a scene-stealing role as the domineering Sister Evangelina. The only low note in the cast is Vanessa Redgrave’s narration as the elderly Jenny Lee, which feels intrusive and pat.
In the UK, Call the Midwife is an even bigger hit than Downton Abbey, and even though in the United States, it’s a hit merely among PBS viewers, it’s a better show. Even though Downton Abbey is more entertaining, there’s elements of camp and soapiness in the show – it’s junk, but classy junk. Call the Midwife is higher-minded and asks more of its audience – it also contains some vital social critique – audiences really begin to see how important gender equality, financial security, and socio and economic parity all are. That doesn’t mean Call the Midwife is a bore and chore to watch – it can still be funny and entertaining, even when the death count does pile up a bit. It’s a great show that really illustrates the changes in society, through the eyes of an engaging and inspiring heroine.