Film & Television

Mystery, Merchants and Motherhood: PBS’s Sunday Night Triple-Header

For those of us still mourning the loss of our beloved Downton Abbey, here’s good news. This spring, PBS is serving up three back-to-back series that will transport you across the pond for the next several Sunday nights. It’s a triple-header of dedicated East End nuns and nurses, a country vicar turned detective, and the ultimate salesman (and showman) of Oxford Street. Each program does what PBS and Masterpiece do best: rich characterizations, intelligent storytelling, and an uncompromising attention to period details and tradition that would make even Mr. Carson proud.

So pour yourself “a cuppa” (tea or gin, it’s up to you) and settle in for PBS’s marvelous spring line-up.

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Call the Midwife, 8:00 pm Sundays

Based on the best-selling memoirs of real-life nurse Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife is set in London’s impoverished Poplar neighborhood. The series begins in the mid-1950s; the residents are just emerging from the aftermath of World War II and facing great change — from the institution of the National Health Service and a post-war baby boom, to a wave of immigration and the very beginnings of vast social change to come. At the center of all of this is a small community of Anglican nuns who, together with young nursing recruits, serve as midwives.

The initial few seasons starred Jessica Raine as Jenny (with British theatre and film legend Vanessa Redgrave narrating as an older, wiser self). When Raine left to pursue other acting opportunities, the show introduced new fictional characters and situations. But, each episode remains grounded in historical issues and events.

The cast is simply wonderful, beautifully blending the work of veterans Pam Ferris, Judy Parfitt and Jenny Agutter with relative newcomers Helen George, Laura Main, Bryony Hannah and popular comedienne Miranda Hart. There are some fine performances by men as well, particularly Stephen McGann, Cliff Parisi and Ben Caplan, but Call the Midwife, as the name suggests, is a show about women, the bonds between them and the work they do together.

In fact, if I had to choose just one of the show’s many strengths, it would be its unending celebration of women’s work. As the midwives of Nonnatus House ride their bicycles from delivery to delivery, they earn universal respect and gratitude from all. London’s East End was a bleak and even dangerous place in the 1950s. Yet, the mysterious work of bringing babies into the world gave hope to the otherwise hopeless.

In Season Five, which began this past Sunday, it’s 1961. Popular culture, music, fashion and a new craze for calisthenics are emerging. But, so too are the tragic results of a morning sickness wonder drug called thalidomide. Two nurses conceal their secret life as lovers, while another copes with a new life — and many regrets — as a recovering alcoholic. But, no matter how soap opera-ish the individual stories may become, they are always grounded by the most important work of all.

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  • Cecilia Ford April 5, 2016 at 10:18 am

    “Call the Midwife” is one of the best PBS shows I’ve ever seen. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It never descends to soap opera level because the life and death issues are so real and central to the plot. But mostly, it’s a celebration of life, and as you said so well, the wonders of women’s “labor” in both senses of the word.

  • Andrea April 5, 2016 at 8:05 am

    I love so many Sunday night shows on tv- I record them and watch Them During the week- even great on my iPad!! Mr selfridge is a great substitute for Downton Abbey! I adore the clothing from that era !!