I’ve never wanted to be a nurse. Or a nun for that matter (except perhaps for a brief obsession with The Sound of Music when I was ten or so). But, all that changes every Sunday evening when I watch Call the Midwife. The U.K. import was recently named Best Period Drama of the 21st century by Radio Times’ readers, beating Poldark, North & South, and even my beloved Downton Abbey. It is a rich portrait of women dedicated to the most important women’s work: safely bringing new life — and with it hope — into a damaged world.
Call the Midwife, which has just started its sixth season here in the U.S., tells the story of a group of nuns and nurses who live and work together at “Nonnatus House” in London’s impoverished East End in the 1950s and 1960s. The series began as an adaptation of Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife: A Memoir of Birth, Joy, and Hard Times. The 2002 book was an acclaimed bestseller, as were subsequent titles Shadows of the Workhouse (2005) and Farewell to the East End (2009). Worth once explained why she felt compelled to write about her experience after retiring from nursing. “So many of those great characters have stayed with me. Most people in London at that time didn’t know the East End; they pushed it aside. There was no law, no lighting, bedbugs and fleas. It was a hidden place, not written about at all.” Sadly, Worth died of cancer at age 75 in 2011, a year before the series based on her life was broadcast.
It’s appropriate that a show so grounded in the lives and work of women has a woman at its helm. Writer/Producer Heidi Thomas, whose other credits range from BBC series Cranford and Upstairs Downstairs II, to screenplays of I Capture the Castle and Ballet Shoes, and the recent Broadway adaptation of Gigi, was undaunted by cynics as she began working on Call the Midwife. “For a very long time before we started to film it, people told us nobody would watch it. They used to say young women will be frightened by it, older women will be disgusted by it, men won’t watch it at all.” With a steady audience of about 11 million viewers, the show has certainly exceeded those dismal expectations.
Today, Thomas attributes much of the series’ success to her team’s refusal to shy away from truth. “What I most love about Call the Midwife and feel continually the most humbled by is when people either come up to me in the street, or write and say ‘Thank you for telling my story. That is how I remember it. That was my pain. That was my birthing room.’ Those were the things I loved. When you’re able to make a programme which is essentially fictional but sufficiently respectful of the facts for people to turn round and say ‘You have reflected my life back to me’, I think that’s very special.” While the show was originally based on Worth’s autobiographical experiences, it has since broadened to cover other issues from the era in which it’s set: domestic violence, immigration, thalidomide, homosexuality, and the introduction of the birth control pill. And when Jessica Raine, the lovely young actress who portrayed Worth in Call the Midwife’s early seasons, left to pursue other projects, the show didn’t suffer. In fact, it used the opportunity to introduce a new and more diverse group of characters.
The cast is uniformly excellent, and currently includes Jenny Agutter as steady leader Sister Julienne, Judy Parfitt as older and sweetly demented Sister Monica Joan, Helen George as Nurse “Trixie” Franklin, Bryony Hannah as nurse-turned-nun Sister Mary Cynthia, and Laura Main as nun-tuned-nurse Shelagh Turner. (The wonderful Pam Ferris left the series last season when her character, implacable Sister Evangelina, died. Celebrated British comedienne Miranda Hart’s schedule hasn’t permitted her to return as Matron “Chummy” Noakes.) Some of the series’ newer nurses are portrayed by Charlotte Ritchie, Linda Bassett, and Kate Lamb. Stephen McCann, who is married to creator Thomas in real-life, is dedicated Doctor Turner; Ben Caplan is a trusty constable; Cliff Parisi is handyman Fred; and Jack Ashton is a local curate and the love interest. One of the (many) marvelous things about Call the Midwife is how the show weaves so many rich personalities together. Week after week, we also meet a handful of expectant mothers, each of whom, although generally relegated to a single episode, is finely drawn and deeply moving.
If you were lucky enough to catch 2016’s Christmas Special (I had to resort to watching a pirated version on YouTube, a decision I wouldn’t normally condone but, as they say, “desperate times call for desperate measures”), you last saw the women of Nonnatus House having left the gritty East End to serve at a clinic in South Africa. This 90-minute episode was a bit contrived and a touch imperialistic, but so well written, acted and executed, that all was not only forgiven but thoroughly enjoyed.