Back when we were all gaga about Downton Abbey, another BBC drama was winning me over. Call the Midwife didn’t get the fanfare of Downton Abbey, but I came to think it was a better show. Make that is a better show — Call the Midwife is still going strong in its sixth season. It’s currently on PBS at 7 p.m. Sundays.
Downton Abbey was fantasy. We were outsiders watching the lives of the titled rich through the window. Call the Midwife is real and universal. I identify with its people, even though I’m not pregnant and living in London’s East End in the late 1950s–early 1960s.
Loosely based on the memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife is a period drama about a group of Anglican nuns and secular nurses who live together and serve the impoverished East End residents as midwives.
The topic of pregnancy allows the writers to focus on such issues as postpartum depression, abortion, birth defects, and birth control. While the period details to which Call the Midwife faithfully adheres are gone, the issues are still relevant.
Those issues and the realistic presentation of childbirth make Call the Midwife not for the faint of heart. Yet the show is an upbeat celebration of humanity. Even when there isn't a conventional happy ending, I'm left with a warm feeling.
A true ensemble drama, Call the Midwife gives ample time to each of its regular characters without making any the star. The residents of Nonnatus House, where the midwives live, include the compassionate sister superior; a retired nun who alternates between senility and wisdom; two obliging young nuns; several young secular midwives who have a tight bond even though their personalities differ; and one older, forthright secular midwife.
Call the Midwife is the rare television show with an all-female starring cast. There are important male characters — the local doctor who married a former nun; the local priest who was engaged to one midwife and is now engaged to another; the convent’s maintenance man — but they are mainly complements to the women.
The cast has had losses and additions over the years. The character whose memoirs introduce each episode, nurse Jenny, has been gone several seasons now. When my favorite character, nurse Chummy, left, maybe or maybe not permanently, I thought Call the Midwife would decline, but it hasn’t. When sharp-spoken Sister Evangelina died, I thought the hole would be hard to fill. But Call the Midwife carries on without faltering. The writers come up with interesting stories for the other characters, both old and new. Nurse Crane was a brilliant addition. The first older secular nurse, she presents a no-nonsense, self-assured contrast to her 20something partners.
What I think is most responsible for Call the Midwife’s continuing excellence are the stories of the patients. The writers keep developing fresh plots. Season 6 so far has focused on a woman trying to escape the abuse of her ex-convict husband; a couple coping with the husband’s being blinded in a factory accident; the risks of pregnancy when the parents are dwarfs; generational tension between a new mother and her traditional Chinese mother-in-law over what’s best for baby; and a penniless mother struggling with whether to give up her baby for adoption.
If you want to check out Call the Midwife, tune in to Channel 11 on Sunday nights at 7 for four more weeks. Each episode can stand alone, so you’ll be able to follow the story. You can check out previous seasons on YouTube, borrow DVDs from public libraries, or buy DVDs.