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  • Friday, March 8, 2013

Review by John Martin

When screenwriter Heidi Thomas unveiled her TV series Call the Midwife, common wisdom at the BBC said no one would watch it. After all, an almost all-female cast of nurses and of nuns who pray for patients and sing the Daily Office seemed hardly the stuff of a TV blockbuster.

Call the Midwife proved the doubters wrong, attracting the biggest audience for a BBC series in more than a decade. Despite carping reviews claiming the series over-sentimentalises the tough lives of poor people in London’s East End, British audiences love it. So too audiences in the United States and Australia. The pain and deprivation in the immediate post-war years in London’s Docklands has gradually emerged. Few happy-ever-after plots here.

U.S. audiences will shortly be treated to the second season of Call the Midwife, which has become a surprising but deserving rival for the sumptuous but lame-brained storylines of Downton Abbey.

The drama is set at Nonnatus House in Poplar, an area of serious deprivation. The community of Anglican nuns and a supporting cast of nurse-midwives is based on real-life St. Frideswide’s Mission House. It was founded in 1893 by Christ Church (cathedral) in Oxford. In those days it was common for universities and elite schools to establish “settlements” in poor parts of the U.K. Best known of these is Toynbee Hall, where the disgraced John Profumo devoted his life to charity work after resigning from Parliament in 1963.

It’s based on a trilogy by Jennifer Worth, who worked as a midwife in Poplar during the 1950s. A great storyteller, she was one of a legion of middle- and upper-class Christians who found a vocation helping the poor based at settlements. Ex-colleagues confirm many of the characters were real-life people.

Others are completely fictional but their plotlines always contain more than a grain of reality. Chummy (short for Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne) played by comedienne Miranda Hart is one example. In the second series, the clumsy but kind six-foot-one Chummy, who comes from a highly privileged family background, responds to a call to work as a missionary in Sierra Leone. We only know she applied to the Church Missionary Society because she puts her application into a brown envelope addressed to the CMS in Salisbury Square London.

People may wonder why she makes only a six-month tour of service but that happened in those days. Eve Vause, who pedalled her way round the streets of Southampton as a community midwife, “got the call” to Sierra Leone in 1958 with the CMS. “The climate was so harsh we were only allowed to stay for a short time,” she explains. Unlike the fictional Chummy, Eve Vause stayed in Africa for 25 years, working in Uganda and Congo after her time in Sierra Leone.

There are unexpected spin-offs from the series. Applications for midwife courses in the U.K. have steepled; a course in Wales reported nearly 1,000 applicants for 16 places.

Without delivering plot-spoilers I can tell you the next series is a bit more gritty than the first: the low life of the docks is more visible. So too the heartbreaks accompanying the way poor women fared in the days before Britain’s welfare state and health service.

Why is Call the Midwife such a success in Britain? No bikini-clad women, no raunchy scenes, no swearing — the usual stuff of popular TV. Scriptwriter Thomas offers this thought: “In some ways, in our fractured and spiralling society, period drama has taken over where Sunday lunch left off. It makes a community of us all, drawing us together in our homes, and sending us back into the world with a common talking point.”

John Martin is TLC’s correspondent based in London.

Season Two begins airing in the United States on March 31 — Easter Sunday. Check local listings.

Watch Season 2 Preview on PBS. See more from Call the Midwife.


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