First Season Overview
As period shows go there is a fine line between where homage to the past becomes an idolized parody, where the view of history or a special period, that helped shaped the country’s identity, becomes too saccharin and too maudlin for the television screen. Fortunately, Call the Midwife is an engaging and charming a treat.
Call the Midwife features a troupe a midwives on bicycles, working in London, helping women with the most intimate, beautiful, and at times terrifying moments of their lives. With a light sensibility and a desire to show the relevance of the feminine experience in a world that is changing, Call the Midwife is an exemplification of excellent British television - pure drama that takes endearing characters through the trials and tribulations of being dedicated to a noble cause, bracketed by the contradictions of real world versus expectations and sometimes tragic subject matter.
The drama takes place in London’s impoverished Poplar District in the East End, a place where the birth rate is high and the quality of life quite low. The show starts with freshly qualified midwives joining the nuns at Nonnatus House, an Anglican religious order and nursing convent, where they begin to work helping the underserved residents of the area. Because of the lack of funds midwives and nuns find themselves pulling triple work shifts, tending to their duties delivering children, caring for pregnant women, while at the same time providing medical attention to those who need the help.
The series is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth a real life midwife who wrote about the trials of those living in this particular area of East London and the struggles for mothers in particular.
By all accounts her character in the memories is accurately reflected in the persona of Nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), a sparkling personality who is taken aback when she finds herself in a convent rather than a private hospital and hit with a healthy dose of culture shock upon entering the East End. Jenny is cultured and well-travelled, having spent some time in Paris, where she had much of her training in the field of nursing. Only 22, her matured voice functions as the narrator and she present the role of the midwife with a reverence akin to the nuns she served with.
Of course, even with such serious subject matter one of the first people that Jenny encounters is the whimsical nun Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) who sets the tone for charming levity that dominates the series. One of the more enigmatic and entertaining characters, a radical trailblazer being amongst the first women to qualify as a midwife in the country, Sister Monica Joan comes from a well titled family that considered her going on to become a nun to be scandalous. At the beginning of the series the audience finds Sister Monica Joan at 90 years of age and retired, but still living in Nonnatus House, stealing cakes and imparting cryptic wisdom.
It’s this sense of mirth and endearment that we experience as Jenny learns to love the place where she works and how the nurses and sisters attempt so much with so little.
Nurse "Chummy" Browne (Miranda Hart) is another character who grew up in a world much different from the East End, but whose attitude towards the conditions of the place and the bittersweet nature of being a midwife in such an impoverished area, is one of perpetual positivity. Chummy is a definite fan favourite, with her quiet demeanour and humble wit, as well as her physical awkwardness all of which belies her substantial talents as a midwife.
Counter-balancing the Introverted Chummy is the vivacious and good hearted Nurse Beatrix “Trixie” Franklin (Helen George), a dedicated midwife whose abilities are matched by her sociable nature and fashionable graces. At work she wears fashionable nylons, vibrant lipstick, and spends the day gossiping with the other midwives, though her dedication to her duties is absolute. Still, she some times rubs the other midwives, especially the nuns, the wrong way and it can make for some entertaining if somewhat awkward moments.
The sisters of Nonnatus House are by no means a boring bunch. The holy nun in charge is Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), the sister-in-charge, who is the second most experienced midwife on the premises, and the woman who keeps the whole place running for the betterment of Poplar’s District, while at the same time being a deeply religious and also exceedingly pious woman. This mix allows her to be both dignified when assisting her patients, while at the same time approaching them with no sense of judgment. Inside the house her role is primarily one of the peace-maker and the person who settles internal drama caused by the clashing personalities of each of the women.
Sister Evangilina (Pam Ferris) is one of the only nuns in Nonnatus House who comes from the harsh world of the East End and that upbringing has given her a rapacious wonder for the world, and a rich sense of humour that is as infectious as her energy and the efficient way that she deals with the mothers in her care, and the other patients she has. Her intimate, blunt way of speaking, impatience with foolish people, and connection to the East End makes her able to form a rich rapport with the people of the area and they feel more than comfortable with her assistance, and candid with their problems.
The charm of the show is as much how these personalities complement each other as it is about the sense of nostalgia, and the view of a time when change was coming to a world that needed and resisted the shifting dynamic. Through Jenny’s journey we see challenges of both women who serve and the women that they serve, as certain sensitive social questions, about love, sex, and the plight of the less fortunate collide with the reserved and dignified history of the sisters and nurses charitable work. At times the idyllic nature of the show’s tone can be a little off-putting to some, but there is a heartfelt authenticity to the dialogue and the plot devices that make it an engaging enough show to warrant everyone watching.
Published on February 25th, 2021. Written by James Thomas for Television Heaven.