Let me preface this by saying that I don’t like babies, and wouldn’t normally be drawn to this show. The only thing I might like less than babies is the process by which they come into the world. So…take those things, remove the last 70 years of medical technology and improvements in standard of living, and you have Call the Midwife. Oh, and add some nuns (one of my big fears in life). Not my favorite show.
The show is based on the memoirs of a midwife who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s. It was an absolute ratings smash in the UK when the first season aired, and they’ve already started airing series 2 in the UK. PBS picked up the rights to series 1 and the Christmas special, and aired them during the fall and early winter. The second season will start on PBS in March. A third season is already planned.
The show primarily follows Nurse Jenny Lee, who has just come to the East End to start her career as a midwife. She is shocked (as was I) at the horrid living conditions in the slums. Jenny is pretty much perfect, her only vice being that she once had an affair with a married man. She is boooring. In addition to the lovely actress playing her, Jessica Raine, we get these voice-over bits from older Jenny, voiced by Vanessa Redgrave. These drove me crazy. It was always ridiculously vague stuff like “I learned what true love was that day…” or something equally inane. I especially hated these voice-overs.
The highlight of the entire series is the character of Chummy, a distinctly upper-crust lady who (despite her upbringing) shows strength and courage in confronting new challenges and terrible living conditions. She is also hilarious. Miranda Hart does a great job playing the character both for laughs and as a very real person. Despite looking something like a linebacker compared to the svelte Nurse Lee (on the right), Chummy (on the left) has an adorable romance with a local constable.
The other girls look lovely in their period costumes, but the show makes no effort to distinguish them as having lives of their own. I can’t even remember their names.
Then there are the nuns. Pam Ferris (aka Aunt Marge) makes an appearance as the crabby Sister Evangelina, and Judy Parfitt (she played the terrifying Mrs. Clennam in BBC’s Little Dorrit) is the slightly mental/eccentric Sister Monica Joan. Again, the rest are a blur.
I had a few problems with this show:
1-Almost every episode contains not-so-subtle plugs for the NHS. The Christmas special, for example, shows the nurses/nuns taking a local homeless woman and getting her cleaned up and examined at the doctor, the dentist, and the eye doctor. She complains that she doesn’t have the money and they have to explain that it won’t cost anything. The NHS was a new thing then, and it undoubtedly made a massive difference to the lives of the poor and destitute in London. I’m not against the NHS, in any way. As someone who spent most of the last ten years without health insurance, and still debates whether going to the doctor is worth the copay, I get the value of the NHS. But I don’t need it shoved down my throat. And I don’t think anyone who is against the NHS (very few Brits, if compared to the people against public medicine in the US) is unaware that it helps people. The propaganda was just really tiring after a while.
2-It was dull. It was ass-numbingly dull, to borrow a phrase. Even though each episode had highlights like birth and/or the tragedy of death, they all ended with the same sort of all-works-out-in-the-end tone that negated any truly emotional response to the events. People want to feel the hurt sometimes. Occasionally, you just need to devastate your audience–really knock them on their asses–and then mike-drop until next week. For examples, see anything Joss Whedon has ever done.
Add that it was all seen through the eyes of unconnected parties (the nurses and nuns). Witnessing someone else’s joy or tragedy can be an immensely difficult thing, but the writers failed to bring any of that emotion across. Add the voice-overs from the modern era and we’re too disconnected from the action. I was bored. Chummy was the only character I wanted to see and be with, week after week.
3-It was a bit unrealistic. I think this is related to the tone. It all ended up for the best, even when people died it was with sweet music or a sense of purpose. It’s painted with too sweet a brush, with the severely-hued glasses of nostalgia.
I return to the Christmas special. The homeless woman was forced to enter the workhouse (a heinous Victorian invention akin to a debtor’s prison. You worked for most of your life, only in exchange for food and rent; you gave up any claim to property or family. Children were separated from parents, wives from husbands. It was glorified slavery, all done with some sort of nod to a Christian charity ideal. A truly awful place. For more info, see the works of Dickens). Her 5 or 6 children all died in the workhouse, but she never got to see them or mourn them. Nurse Lee and the nuns clean her up, get her to the doctor, and then take her to her children’s graves. It’s a nice gesture, and she certainly looks better. And despite having a tragic and terrible life with enough horrible events to send anyone around the bend, she’s magically salient and coherent and capable again? She’s cured by their help? As if a bath and a new sweater can change what happened to her?
For anyone who has experienced life, we know that that is utter bullshit.
I frankly cannot understand why this show was such a big hit. I imagine it has a lot to do with nostalgia. Older people like to remember a time when things were simpler and think it was all roses and sunshine. Parents like to remember when their children were born. Maybe it’s easy to look back and think things were better when we were younger. They weren’t. We were just more naive.
The L.A. Times called it “unapologetically sentimental”, and I can’t help but agree. Except for me that is not a compliment.
Add to my genuine dislike of the show itself, it features a lot of truly nauseating footage of deliveries that seem WAY too realistic. I am a woman, but I want nothing to do with seeing this stuff. There are a lot of reasons I don’t want kids, and this show gave me a few extra reasons. One example that was particularly horrifying was when a baby is born breech and the mom-to-be has to stop pushing and let the baby hang out of her vagina for about a minute, with its head still inside. WHAT? No. No. No.
Judging by reviews and ratings, I’m in the minority in not liking this show. But, I’m in the minority for not liking babies. Coincidence?
Regardless, I won’t be tuning in for the next season.