(Image from pbs.org)
I heard rave reviews of Call the Midwife this winter, mostly from the same friends who introduced me to Downton Abbey and Lark Rise to Candleford. But I was busy following Downton‘s fourth season and untangling the plots, murder-related and otherwise, on Castle. Besides, I’ve never been much for watching birth scenes, and I figured (rightly) that a show about midwives would involve a lot of them.
However, after hearing yet another friend rave about this show, I picked up the first season at my library. And I’m utterly beguiled by Jenny Lee, her fellow midwives, the nuns at Nonnatus House, and the tough but fascinating East End of London, where they live and work.
Jenny comes from a sheltered middle-class background, and she is continually shocked by the living conditions in the East End. This is the 1950s – an era still in living memory – but many homes lack basic amenities. When a woman goes into labor, someone has to run to the public phone box down the street to summon a midwife – the doctor is only called in serious cases. Most births happen at home; some women have a baby every year (though the Spanish woman in episode 1.1, with her 24 children, is a rarity). Jenny’s colleagues are a kind but no-nonsense crowd: they’ve seen it all, and they expect her to take the difficulties of the job in her stride.
The nuns at Nonnatus House are no cloistered idealists: they are tough, resourceful and pragmatic, even when faced with horrifying or deeply uncomfortable situations. I loved wise Sister Julienne and kind Sister Bernadette at first sight, and I’ve warmed to the brusque but goodhearted Sister Evangeline. And Sister Monica Joan, with her hilarious non sequiturs and penchant for stealing cake, is so much fun. Fred the handyman, with his wacky moneymaking schemes, is a comforting presence, and Constable Noakes, who falls in love with tall, gawky midwife Chummy, is so sweet.
I also love the period details of the show, from the vintage cars to the midwives’ bicycles to the modish dresses they wear on their days off. The music of the era winds through the show (though it sometimes seems jarringly cheerful during sad scenes). The midwives’ occasional nights out (or nights in with sherry and board games) provide a lift after the often difficult labor scenes. And I’m waiting for Jenny to move on from a past love affair and fall in love with a good man.
Have you watched Call the Midwife? (Do you get squeamish at birth scenes, like me?)