BBC’s shows are called “Masterpieces” for a reason and Call the Midwife is an especially touching one. Set in the 1950s, it’s about the life of young midwives in a poor district in East London. The midwives – four young women – live in a nursing convent alongside some resplendent nuns. This might sound like a mild description, but this show is absorbing in all its blood, joy, and heartbreak. (You know you are signing up to cry if it is about babies and moms and poor families. You just know.) I think a better description is one of the quotes from episode one: “Midwifery is the very stuff of life.” The Venn diagram of shows that are critically acclaimed and loved by me to no end is sometimes a small, pitiful circle, but Call the Midwife is one of them.
I knew I needed to watch Call the Midwife because it’s BBC (a compelling reason as any to watch something), it’s about nurses, and it’s a period drama. IT WAS MADE FOR ME! (Or any other period-drama-loving nurses. Which may actually be the majority of them.) But that’s misleading because you will not love this show only if you’re a nurse. You will love it if you are a person breathing.
Series 1 is primarily seen through the sometimes naive and stiff, deeply caring lens of Nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) who “side-steps love” (to my great sadness) to join midwifery and make it her life’s work. Vanessa Redgrave, as the older Jenny, narrates the show in her perfect elderly-lady voice as she looks back on her life. All I can really think to say is that by the second episode in, I was gushing tears, and not because of an ill-fated romance, but because of a new nurse’s courage in delivering her first baby in breech position. It is simply beautiful to see a show about patients and families putting their trust – their bodies, their hearts, their souls – in the hands of these young midwives, dedicated to taking care of them. This is a passionate and compassionate show, every minute of it because you actively see the fabulous cast of nurses touching their patient’s lives. For anyone starting a career, it’s inspiring to see the new midwives adjust to difficult situations, though certainly particularly to new grad nurses.
Though the entire cast is fantastic, one of the real scene-stealers is Miranda Hart as Nurse Chummy (which is a name I’d now like to go by). She’s a treat to watch in every scene, whether it’s while she’s falling down on her bike (poor old girl!), awkwardly romancing (the best way to go about romancing, I think) the sweet Constable Noakes, or just speaking very intellectually in high-stress situations.
As the resident wealthy newbie to the iron-tight midwife clan, she at first garners the dislike of Sister Evangelina, an older grumpy nurse nun. Nurse-Nun is already an admirable if intimidating combination of profession, and when Sister Evangelina shames her for lateness to her first appointment, it’s all you can do to not be flustered alongside Chummy. She jumps in to help her patients, starting with the one crying uncontrollably during the doctor’s discussion, and succeeds in comforting the patient, only to break several glass enemas afterwards and earn Sister Evangelina’s wrath. It’s not just a few words and a handkerchief that help the patient, though, as the kind doctor (Stephen McGann) points out later. It’s her active listening, her empathy, and her reassurance that make the patient feel safe and able to go on with the procedure. Though Sister Evangelina is sure of her incompetency as a nurse, because she’s annoyingly book-smart and otherwise clumsy – it’s gratifying to see Chummy prove her wrong. A great nurse isn’t just one who is perfectly adept at her skill set, but one who can also make their patient feel safe and communicate. This is the tiniest instance of what a nurse does in communicating with patients, but the show underlines what a vital part it plays in giving patients quality care. Considering the sometimes very poor portrayal of nurses in media and watching this as a new nurse myself, I can’t express how beautifully the show portrays nurses and how well the content reflects what nursing is about, in addition to being a spectacular historical drama.
Each episode has a new look at life in the 1950s: society and the advancements in health care in the post-war era. The conditions of birth are not glossed over, and the show is meticulous in its depiction of health care and the lives of the poor in the Poplar district. The other midwives, like the fun-loving Nurse Trixie, and reserved, sweet Nurse Cynthia further add to the charm of the show as a fearsome friendship blossoms among the foursome. The nuns serve as strict teachers, eccentric old ladies, or loving mothers for the young midwives, and are well-acted roles.
The beautiful evolution of character relationships only seen on shows is ever-present here, and the acting very much supports that. I really enjoyed the relationships in series 1 so far. Mainly, the way the show depicts the respect the nurses struggle to both consistently gain from their patients and show to their patients. There are hate-to-love friendships and sob-worthy nurse-patient interactions. Additionally, each 50-minute episode gives viewers the chance to see the unseen, routine, small things nurses do for their patients that aren’t so easily listed. It might be cutting the toenails off of a homeless woman or visiting family graves with a patient. It might be keeping an affair private or providing care in the grimiest of places to the most uncooperative of patients. Or, it might be the things nurses are more known for – holding a husband’s hand as his wife dies. Advocating for a young girl to keep her baby. Showing people love and no judgment; dealing with the compassion fatigue that sometimes accompanies nursing. Call the Midwife is probably so touching and humane because it’s based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth by the same name.
I found series 1 to be compelling, educational, and relatable – because the show is, at it’s core, about people and their stories of love. Nurse Jenny says it herself -she escapes her own love story to observe the stories of so many others. While I was a bit worried that the show wouldn’t have much romance since Nurse Jenny begins the show fleeing from love, no fear! It’s not mainly about romance but there’s enough in series 1, and the show will keep you watching without it (I am saying this as TV-romance lover extraordinaire, which shocks me myself.) It’s also (as always, since all shows are arguably about talking to people), enjoyable to view a show specifically about interacting with and caring for others, and how challenging and rewarding this can be for everyone.
Nurse Trixie, on mothers giving birth: “Baby after baby, in abominable conditions. They’re the heroines. I’m just here to help.”
Call the Midwife is overall a show about love – a romance with life. There’s so much life in midwifery and nursing- love, lust, pain, tragedy, and joy and Call the Midwife captures it poignantly. It also has great ‘50s lingo “you’re a brick!” or “don’t be a big girl’s blouse!” and personally any show with catchy old tunes gets me. There are 5 seasons in total, all available on Netflix, so assemble your handkerchiefs and go!