The historical drama “Call the Midwife” takes its audience to the East End of London, England, during the 1950s—an area populated predominantly by poor factory workers and dockworkers and their families. The BBC series highlights the lifestyle and living conditions of the residents during the interim decade that fell between World War II and the legalization of birth control.
While these years saw both widespread economic growth and medical advancements, neither was necessarily visible or available to the women of the East End, who gave birth to about 100 babies every month, most of whom were delivered at home with the assistance of midwives.
Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, published in 2002, “Call the Midwife” follows Jenny Lee, a young and unseasoned nurse, as she begins her career as a midwife. She moves into Nonnatus House, an Anglican convent where both nuns and lay nurses live and serve as midwives to the women of the East End. Unsanitary conditions, disease, and the stress of life-threatening birthing complications are just a few of the challenges Jenny faces upon arrival. She quickly realizes that both her survival and success as a resident and midwife in the East End will be determined by much more than her medical skills: her day-to-day work, routine, and interactions will require both a steady hand and stout heart, and equal parts gumption and compassion.
A strong ensemble cast pulls together and creates a cast of characters who are as charming as they are quirky, and the show is filled with moments both humorous and poignant. There is Sister Monica Joan, whose increasing bouts of confusion and dementia are offset by striking statements of wisdom that are, at times, almost prophetic. While Sister Evangeline’s no-nonsense nature often rubs the young, more “modern” nursing staff the wrong way, it earns her credibility in the community. Despite her tough-love demeanor, her commitment to both the community and her co-workers prove she is much more “love” than “tough.”
The nurses are likeable and relatable as well: compassionate Jenny, quiet Cynthia, go-get-’em Trixie, and insecure yet sharp-as-a-tack Chummy. It is through their young, unseasoned eyes that we see East End life unfolding. What they, and consequently the viewer, most often see is light meeting life: revealing what is in the darkness, uncovering those hidden there, and ultimately illuminating the way forward.
A grandiose claim for a mere TV series? Perhaps. But we are talking about nuns, after all. While it might just be a show, “Call the Midwife” seamlessly blends hardship and humor, the secular and sacred, Christ in us meeting Christ among us. It depicts intense medical scenes, including birthing scenes, and also addresses difficult, always-relevant topics such as abuse, prostitution, neglect, poverty, child labor, teen pregnancy, and abortion. In doing so, it doesn’t shy away from the raw, painful, and ugly parts of life. But as the stories surrounding these issues develop and unfold, a space is always created for light, life, and beauty to appear.
Because of the graphic content and strong thematic elements, “Call the Midwife” might not be suitable for young viewers, and if teens watch it, parental discussion with them about it would be appropriate. However, the serious nature of some of the topic matter does not overshadow the uplifting tone or life-affirming messages. No matter the conditions or circumstances, the endearing, always-hoping-for-the-best-and-never-giving-up nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House value, cherish, and fight for every baby they are charged with bringing into the world. The miracle of new life—and the beauty of the deep love birthed with it—are present in every episode, seeming to bring light to the faces of all who witness its wonder.
The eight episodes of season two are currently airing on PBS through May; season one is available for purchase on DVD and can also be viewed on Netflix.
Image copyright BBC.
Annie Provencher is a writer in Northern Virginia.