My last two weeks’ evenings were spent watching the amazing BBC drama Call the Midwife. It’s nothing like I’ve expected and so much more than just a simple medical drama like we’re used to. One of the reasons must be the memoirs it’s based on – Jennifer Worth’s. They are immensely popular, praised for their faithful representation of the profession and of the everyday life of a young nurse. They could hardly go wrong, I think.
The drama is placed in London’s East End in the 50’s, one of the poorest districts there, and focuses on a tightly knit group of midwives and nurses in the Nonnatus house, a nursing convent. There are both retired midwives and secular nurses living there, not to mention other visitors. Let’s just say that there’s never a shortage of interesting events taking place there. I especially like the hide and seek games – with this many women living together, knowing where the latest stash of biscuits or cake is hidden is truly a valuable information. Hehe.
Our protagonist is Nurse Jenny Lee – she’s a competent nurse, but she’s got more to learn before she’ll truly become an excellent one. Often she’s shocked and overwhelmed by the situations her job puts her in, but with the helping hand of her mentors and colleagues she pulls through. I doubt I’d react any better than her when faced with appalling conditions some families live in; in fact, I believe I’d be similar to sister Evangelina – a grumpy, huffing piece of an irate, or exasperated, midwife. She does have a heart of gold, but she shows it more by worrying or chastising everyone than by sprouting sweet words. It is a kind of tough love she’s got going on.
Other nuns are a force to be reckoned with as well. They’re such loving souls – I can well understand why the women trust them as much as they do. Just the sight of them seems to make them be at ease. Sisters Julienne and Bernadette have goodness written on their faces, and they seem to know the right words to say in any situation. I hope to see more of them in the future since we often spend more time with the other nurses, especially Chummy and Jenny. I can’t leave out one of the funniest nuns – the retired midwife sister Monica Joan. She often speaks about astrology, sprouts verses of songs, Shakespeare, Latin proverbs and the like. It drives sister Evangelina up the walls. Despite old age playing with her mind, she’s surprisingly aware of things going on in the convent. I do hope her condition does not deteriorate further – I like her playful mind. ‘She’s foxy’, as sister Evangelina would say.
Then there are the nurses: the quiet Cynthia Miller, who often gets overlooked by many viewers, I think, then there’s the debonair Trixie Franklin, a blonde bombshell waiting to enjoy life, and the tall, clumsy nurse Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne, better known as ‘Chummy’. She’s one of my favourites, I must admit, and I’m not the only one confessing my love for her. She’s this really warm person packaged in a big unruly body, an understanding soul who’s a little unsure of herself and so self-conscious one must feel the urge to wrap her in gauze and keep her safe. I took an instant liking to her. She may need more time to get her head wrapped around things, but once she does, she shines. Her first solo midwife job was a breech birth – talk about a debut under fire!
The drama gives us plenty scenes of birth; nothing too graphic and not too much of that horrible Hollywood screaming. I was relieved by that as I’d been very repulsed by such portrayals before. I’ve done a lot of research into birth and pregnancy, which is something I recommend any woman to do, and all videos I’ve watched had very little of that infernal howling. I was also pleasantly surprised to see different birth positions – for example on the side, sitting and so on. Lying on the back is not really a good position since the baby’s weight makes the delivery longer and more painful, but it does make it easier for the personnel to make rounds, especially if the mother is tied down with machines. Sometimes I shake my head at the medical institution, especially the way they treat women. While I can’t imagine giving birth at home (or any kind of birth), having the same midwife monitor your pregnancy and be there with you during delivery is a great idea.
And while midwifery is an integral part of the job, these women perform other duties as well. They visit the old and sickly, make house calls; run an afternoon clinic where they monitor the health of the babies and their mothers, give out information about contraception and diseases and so on. There are also many situations that take us back to the previous era – the horrible conditions in the workhouses – and point out the political and societal changes taking place in the 50’s. We can glimpse a start of a different era, of new medical practises and breakthroughs, the slow change for the better – or so it seems. I still firmly believe that midwives have been pushed aside in the last decades and doctors are taking over this medical profession entirely. At least in my country it is so. Really, they are needed only for the difficult births – normal, minimal risk deliveries can be monitored entirely by midwives.
What this show has also made me realise is how little we really learn about pregnancy and child birth in school or at home. I found most of the information on my own, really, but the tales of childbirth I’ve heard around did not inspire much confidence in the local hospital’s competence. There were at least two instances I’ve heard of women being left in the room alone for hours, once with horrible consequences. So when I see these women give birth in rudimentary conditions and deliver healthy babies, I’m filled with a keen sense of wonder and joy.
The drama, as expected, touched upon other issues a midwife is likely to come across – prostitution, venereal disease, contraception and abortion, but also infant and mother death. The drama does all that in a way that feels neither contrived nor forced – we are not spoon fed some hard realisations, like some shows are wont to do, instead we are treated to a very organic plotline. Of course we can’t avoid sentimentality, but the way this drama touches your heart is truly amazing. And even if we are laughing one moment at the antics of the nurses, in a flash we can be treated to a cold dose of reality – poverty, abuse, suffering, fear… Life goes on. As the nurses tell Jenny – these women are heroines, pushing forward, taking care of their families as best they can.
I don’t care how historically accurate the drama is – just the glimpse of women’s issues in a different time is enough for me. We see so little of that, really, so I’m grateful for any bit of information. It’s a recommended watch for anyone looking for a heart-warming drama, especially for history buffs and women of all ages. There’s even romance and wonderful 50’s fashion, if that is more up your valley.