Call the Midwife: Season 1
The medical series has been a main stay of the television programing slat since the very beginning over sixty years ago. Other types of shows may come and go but along with the police and legal professionals those in the medical field have a source of constant representation on the glowing tube. Typically a medical show will focus on doctors with nurses either as supporting characters or, in a few notable cases, able to take center stage in their own series. Recently the main television network in England, BBC, took on a virtually unexploded niche in the medical specialty Parthenon, in a show call ‘Call the Midwife’. Many people in the United States may not be familiar with this most noble profession that pre-dates every other specialty in medicine, assisting in childbirth. Undoubtedly more experienced, older women have helped young expecting mothers bring a new life in the world. Initially, the training was on the job, so to speak, by in modern times the educational process was formalized with institutions dedicated to the science and art of midwifery. One of my best friends became an accredited midwife in England so I have heard some firsthand accounts of the training required and the frequently dramatic deliveries the career entails. In typical British tradition ‘Call the Midwife’ was also based on such real life experiences. The series was based on the popular novel of the same written by former English midwife, the late Jennifer Worth, as the first installment of a trilogy.
The premise explores the life of group of nursing nuns working in the East End of London, a working class neighborhood. The time was post-World War Two era of the fifties when most of the residents were still in the process of recovering from the devastating Nazi aerial bombardments. Any medical drama is intrinsically fertile ground for exciting story lines. The men and women dealing with medical emergencies face life and death situations arguably more than either the police or fire departments. The midwife is present during one of the most emotionally intense times that life can present. While most births go smoothly there is always the possibility of a breech birth or conditions like placenta previa that can place the lives of mother and infant in imminent mortal danger. This is where the ‘most natural experience’ requires the steady, season hand of a professional. For many people hospitals and obstetricians are not a realistic option. For others the mother may just want to go for the old fashion home birth.
The series follows a novitiate midwife, Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) as she begins her career as a district nurse working out of ‘The Nonnatus House’, a nunnery in London’s East End section. The narrative of the show is retrospective, provided through the point of view of Jenny in her later years as voiced by award winning British actress, Vanessa Redgrave. This can be an overused presentational ploy but in an expert, dedicate group of craftsmen the results can be brilliant. In this instance the narration provided by Ms Redgrave perfectly reinforces the memoir motif of the novel. The BBC was diligently earned a reputation for excellence in programming on both sides of the Atlantic. This series reinforces this tradition in a spectacular fashion. Admittedly some will describe the show overly sentimental presenting life through a soft focus lens. This is a rather jaded leap to judge a series denying the value of a sentimentally driven television series. We have had our share of such programming here, typically in a series with religious overtones encompassing such faire as ‘Touched by an Angel’ or ‘7th Heaven’. In a real way the setting of a convent brings this series under the general category but with the emphasis shifted to a much narrower practice of faith through practical assistance. The autobiographical foundation of the show not only adds a certain level of realism but also serves to define some parameters around the sentimental content keeping it in check.
The act of given birth is fraught with an internally derived drama but the emotional heart of the series rests in the day to day life in this nursing convent. The women who live and work there represent a cross section of the nineteen fifties London society. Each of the characters is finely painted with exceptional detail and readily relatable with the audience. Throughout the season the personal backstories of each of the women present unfolds impeccably paced and beautifully woven into a humanistic tapestry. Jenny has just graduated from nursing school and the nunnery is her first assignment. Jenny came from a middle class family but it did not prepare her for the realities of the East End. In contrast her co-worker, Chummy Browne (Miranda Hart), had an even more pronounced culture shock. She was born to a privileged family but faced rejection for being a plus sized, ungainly woman. The mode of transportation was a bicycle, something she finds difficult to master. The mother superior and eldest member of the service is Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt, ‘Little Dorrit’). She is the mandatory ditsy character with an inconsistent memory and perchance to kleptomania. The crusty nun that has something to say about virtually everything is Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris). It comes out that it is a façade covering a large, understanding heart. Finally there is the nun that is foundation of the group, Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter). She represents the font of wisdom and compassion, a role model and mentor for Jenny and the other women present.
The episodes deal with a wide variety of circumstances cutting a swatch through the common experiences of humanity. On the serious side we see the ladies as they council a 15 year old Irish girl who is forced to give up her infant. The emotional intensity of this story is compelling, an engrossing examination of a young life in crisis and the empathic women reaching out to comfort her. In a community like this a medical professional has to reach beyond the strict denotation of their profession to be the confidant and advisor. The best thing about this series is its innate ability to find a balance; between characters and situations. This is demonstrated here by a more comical note when Jenny tries to help an old friend from her old neighborhood, Jimmy (George Rainsford). When he shows up unannounced looking for a place to crash Jenny hides him in a niche in the basement boiler room. This series is touching, emotionally driven and real; a must have.
Wimples, Babies and Bicycles: Cast Members Discuss Giving Birth to Call The Midwife