Guest column by Alice Maltin
I watched the first episode several months ago. Screaming women giving birth in squalid conditions in the poorest part of London was not my cup of tea. Looking for a pleasant escape, I turned off the DVD. Then, on a rainy Sunday afternoon with nothing to do, I watched an episode…and then another. I couldn’t stop. Based on the best-selling memoirs of Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife isn’t just about the birthing of children. It’s about people, all kinds, who carry on no matter what life throws at them. They survived WW2 and now they must survive life.
The story begins in the early 1950s in East London. This is not the London of travel brochures; its people are poor and the rubble of bomb sites remain everywhere. It is a time before birth control pills and the National Health Service. For them, childbirth is left only to midwifery. Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), fresh from nursing school (and a well-to-do middle class upbringing) joins the nursing nuns of Nonnatus House. The young nurses and the nuns do everything they can to provide the best care for these women and their community. They are on call at all hours (babies don’t know about train schedules) and ride bicycles through filthy streets in sun and rain. Being middle class, they try to understand why people continue to have babies in such poverty. No matter, they are there to serve and not question circumstances.
The sisters of Nonnatus House are people you would have loved to know. They are doing God’s work and that’s all that matters. No hypocrisy or sermons, just tender care for all the people of this Godforsaken place. Jenny Agutter, Pam Ferris, and Judy Parfitt are wonderful as the older nuns. Laura Main is the young one still questioning her vows. Joining Jessica Raine as the novice nurses are Helene George (Trixie) Bryony Hannah (Cynthia) and Miranda Hart (Chummy Browne). They are proper young ladies thrown into a world only read about in novels (think Charles Dickens).
The stories are heart-wrenchingly sad and still uplifting, as they celebrate the human spirit that refuses to be beaten down. There’s the young prostitute carrying a child who is only 15 herself…a pregnant woman who had a one-night stand shortly after marrying an older man and now is terrified that the newborn will reveal her secret. Jenny befriends a lonely WWI veteran whose wife and son have died. Having no money, he will be sent to an old soldier’s home to slowly fade away. Is there anything Jennie can do?
In the background children play, oblivious to the harshness of their lives and the changing world around them. Families keep having babies and then calling the midwives. Watching this series, you will respect these nurses for their excellent skills amidst primitive conditions and kind dedication to all citizens of East London.
Spoiler alert: the child birthing scenes are graphic and not for the squeamish. I know my darling husband would not stick around (although 26 years ago he did stay at my side for our daughter’s birth).