Sunday, April 7, 2013

Relax and Call the Midwife: Musings on Call the Midwife

I heard about Call the Midwife (BBC, PBS, 2012-), the BBC adaptation of Jennifer Worth's trilogy of memoirs about post-World War II midwifery, through the cybergrapevine long before the show made its way across the pond to the American shores. Call the Midwife, I learned, while exploring the Web had taken the television and media establishment British world by surprise becoming a hit in the UK even outperforming Downton Abbey in the British ratings war of 2012.

I was anxious to see Call the Midwife when it debuted on PBS in the fall of 2012. I have been an avid watcher and love of British period dramas since Upstairs Downstairs (ITV 1971-1975, PBS, 1974-1975) in the 1970s. Call the Midwife was yet another British period drama I expected to enjoy. And I have to say the show didn't disappoint. Call the Midwife is one of the most fascinating television shows I have seen in years.

On one level Call the Midwife with its uplifting mostly somewhat linked short story tales, a kind of television equivalent of Alice Munro's short story novel The Beggar Maid, of a group of Anglican nuns and secular nurses working at Nonnatus House in the East End to bring health care to the mostly poor East Enders who have never had it before the advent of the National Health Service (NHS) instituted by the Atlee government after World War II, is a throwback to the "treacly" and educational television shows of the 1950s in the US and particularly in the UK. Jenny (Jessica Raine), Call the Midwife's narrator, helps a woman give birth to her 23rd child. Chummy (Miranda Hart) successfully deals with a breach birth of a 42 year old woman whose earlier pregnancies had ended tragically (1:2). Sisters Evangelina (Pam Ferris)and Bernadette (Laura Main) and Chummy help birth their handyman Fred's (Cliff Parisi) pigs, his latest get rich scheme. Trixie (Helen George) and Sister Evangelina help a young woman aboard a Swedish cargo ship give birth during a difficult pregnancy.

On another level, however, Call the Midwife tinges its tales of heroic midwives, strong mothers, and a sense of working class community with a vein of sadness and melancholy. There is a wife who had an affair with a Black man and is now pregnant (1:3). There is an old soldier who is now infirm and who has lost his wife who looses his legs when he is forced out of his apartment and warehoused (1:3). There is a beloved pregnant middle class wife who dies of ecclampsia (1:4). There is a fifteen year old Irish girl forced by economic circumstance into prostitution who becomes pregnant, has her baby taken from her, and who kidnaps another infant because of her yearning for her daughter (1:2 and 1:4). There are a brother and sister who had suffered through the terrors of the workhouse only to cling to each other in loving ways some found unacceptable ever since (1:5). There is an old mother who was forced into the workhouse in the days before the war where she had her children taken from her thanks first to workhouse rules and then by death (Christmas Special, 2012). There is a pregnant wife who loves her husband despite his abuse of her and her fear that he might abuse their young daughter because he loves her (2:1). There is the captain who is pimping his daughter out to his ships crew in order to keep them happy (2:1).

There are so many other things that fascinated me about the deeply sad and tragic yet life affirming and sometimes deeply moving Call the Midwife including its very sympathetic treatment of the religion of its Anglican nuns, something not common in today's American and British television environment, its celebratory treatment of the NHS, which really did better the lives of Britain's poor, something many contemporary Brits and most Americans don't grasp in this era of neo-liberal narcissistic bah humbugism, its superb musical score that so nicely captures the shows triumphs and tragedies, and its superb mise-en-scene.

What I found perhaps most interesting about Call the Midwife, however, is the different reaction Americans have had to the show compared to that for the massive cultural phenomenon that is Downton Abbey. Downton Abbey garnered an incredible amount of attention in the media and blogosphere in cyberspace. Call the Midwife simply hasn't garnered the attention or the viewers, though it did, according to Time, bring in 50% percent more viewers than the usual PBS fare, Downton Abbey did. I think the answer to why this is so is not that hard to figure out. Call the Midwife is set in the more recent past, the 1950s, and has the poverty ridden East End, hardly the place dreams are made of as its focus. Downton Abbey is set amidst the glamourous, at least upstairs, past of manor houses, expensive clothes, and the romantic travails of the rich and beautiful, a geography not only years away from the more recent past of the East End but worlds away from the poverty of the East End. The poverty of the recent past, I guess, is just not the stuff of US viewer imaginations particularly when compared with the dream world of the manor house past so many viewers apparently like to dream that they are living in.

I don't want to end this brief essay on a sociological note so let me close by noting that miracles do indeed happen sometimes. Even that right wing inveterate hater of the BBC the Daily Mail loves Call the Midwife. You might too if you made the time to watch. Particularly if you are one of those folks looking for religion in Downton Abbey. Religion may not be easily found in Downton Abbey but it certainly can be readily found in Call the Midwife.

For views contrary to mine on Call the Midwife (but which I find empirically problematic) see:
Sam Wollaston, "TV Review: Call the Midwife", the Guardian, 20 January 2013
Serena Davis "Call the Midwife: Series Two, Episode One, BBC One, Review", the Telegraph, 20 January 2013

Here is a wonderful mashup of Call the Midwife and Doctor Who, Red Nose Day, 2013

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