It’s easy to see why the BBC drama Call the Midwife is rivaling Downton Abbey as the biggest hit of British television. The show combines elements of soap opera, comedy, drama, and is just the sort of life-affirming thing that attracts audiences. The second series of Call the Midwife offers much of the same from the first: social commentary on women’s health in the 1950s, critique on gender roles and class differences, as well as minor tales of romance. And the added bonus is that if some viewers only join the show in the second series, they will still be able to fall in love with the characters, as the second series can act on its own.
A quick recap: Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) is a young nurse who joins the Nonnatus House, a nunnery with Anglican sisters and young nurses who treat the women of London’s impoverished East End. Still crawling back to its health from WWII, the London in Call the Midwife is a vibrant but desperately poor landscape, where the birth of another baby isn’t always a welcome event. In any given scene, there are scores of dirty, street urchins littering the streets, giving the program an almost Dickensian feel at times.
The midwives take their jobs very seriously. An expectant mother calls in when she’s in labor, and off the midwives go, biking down the cobbled streets to tend to their patients. This is where the writers get to do some handy social critique, particularly on the social conditions of the poor in 1950s London. But class isn’t the only topic up for examination – in the second season we get a particularly brutal episode that showcases the consequences of illegal abortions – and I’d make the episode compulsory watching for any anti-choicer who decides to bloviate on women’s reproductive rights. Also, unlike last season, the show also goes into racial discourse with an excellent episode on how prejudice and racism stains the folks at London’s East End. Are the topical issues handled deftly with a subtle hand? Nope – it’s very easy to detect which side of the aisle the writers root for, and if you are conservative, you won’t necessarily like the way your view points are presented – but to us lefties, who cares? It makes for sumptuous viewing and it lets us feel smug and self-righteous.
It’s interesting that I’ve just finished watching the second series of Call the Midwife, because I’m just getting through William Manchester’s and Paul Reid’s biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940 – 1965, which goes into detail on the hardships the English – particularly Londoners – felt in the years after WWII. It’s not necessary to have a background knowledge of British midcentury history, but knowing just how bad the economy was, and just how austere the rationing was, makes it all the more poignant when you see characters on the program fretting because they have six, seven, or eight children to feed.
A great point to the show’s credit is its unflinching view of childbirth in poverty-stricken 1950s London. Viewers aren’t gifted with lovely, gauzy scenes of women giving easy births after merely clearing their throats. On Call the Midwife, the births enacted are shockingly realistic (thanks to some nifty prosthetic, silicon-based newborn baby dolls), and the outcomes of the subplots are often dire, with unhappy results. We don’t always get to see smiling, exhausted moms being handed squirming little tykes – often the children do die, and the writers bravely mine those tragic storylines to give some gravitas to the proceedings.
Another major virtue of the show is its excellent cast. Raine leads a cast of excellent actors, all given a chance to do some wonderful work. Pam Ferris (Rosemary & Thyme) is a standout among the ladies, but the real scene-stealer is comedienne Miranda Hart, who plays the endearingly awkward but highly competent Chummy. Hart’s good-natured and compassionate performance will outlast the series and is proof that aside from being a highly skilled comic, she’s also a very underrated actress. And acting legend Vanessa Redgrave narrates the series in her inimitable gravely voice.
The second series gives more to its audiences – more babies, more deaths, more romance. But it also shows just how compelling these stories – based on the series of memoirs from Jennifer Worth – are. The midwives are a chapter in women’s history that provide viewers with a glimpse of a group of capable, strong, and brave women who made it their life’s goal to help those less fortunate than they. And it’s for that reason that Call the Midwife is a program to celebrate.