CONFESSIONS OF A BBC BINGE WATCHER: CALL THE MIDWIFE
By Sue Wurster
Years ago, I was having lunch with actor friend John Newton at my local corner diner in NYC. It was one of those places which tends to be stuffed with at least three too many tables, and on this particular occasion, every seat was filled.
John had just landed a role on the then popular soap opera, The Doctors, and was bemoaning his fate. “I have to confess,” he said. “I hate being a doctor.” And when I asked why, he replied, “Well, I can never pronounce the diseases, and all of my patients die.”
There was a distinct gurgling sound from our right as a woman struggled to down the gulp of coffee she had taken before John’s admission. And there was an even clearer harrumph from our left. Glowering looks galore–and an elbow to John’s right ear as a tall, thin man in a three-piece suit maneuvered his way out.
I have to confess as well. I have never liked medical shows. I know, I know. That makes me probably one of the only inveterate couch potatoes in the universe who did not get into the likes of Dr. Kildare, Marcus Welby, ER, or Gray’s Anatomy. As a naturally squeamish being, I spent just way too much of their air-time with my hands over my eyes. So, how on earth did I end up watching this season’s Call the Midwife on PBS? I’m still not sure–but I think it may have been a simple case of mistiming. I was headed for Masterpiece Theatre and got there an hour early.
However it happened, I was soon hooked, and I found myself looking forward to each new episode in a way I hadn’t looked forward since, oh, probably Downton Abbey. And, upon the season’s close, I ended up hitting Netflix for more. So, what makes this one work for a squeamish viewer (who still turns away during most of the actual birthing parts)? The characters, the setting, the writing…
So, if you have not partaken of this particular BBC gem, it’s well worth your time to do so. Based upon the memoirs of nurse Jennifer Worth (who, sadly, died shortly before the first episode aired), this family drama is set in Post-WW2 London’s impoverished Poplar district. Nurse Jenny Lee arrives at Nonnatus House, a nursing convent in the district, to take on a job as midwife. A host of truly engaging and endearing characters, played by an outstanding cast, provides multi-layered interest and appeal.
Sister Monica Joan, for example–played by Judy Parfitt (Jewel in the Crown, Pride & Prejudice, Girl with a Pearl Earring to name just a few credits)–is a brilliant, and compassionate yet eccentric older sister beset with bouts of dementia. The equally quirky Camilla “Chummy” Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne–played by actress/comedian Miranda Hart (perhaps best-known for her semi-autobiographical series, Miranda) –is a gawky, uncertain midwife who has just finished her training and finds her niche, leading her to defy the expectations of her aristocratic family. Beyond the lives and loves of the inhabitants of Nonnatus House, we are immersed in Poplar of the late 1950s and 60s–with all of the social issues that such an environment hosts.
And the writing, of course, is top-notch. From the voice-over narration of “older Jenny” (provided by Vanessa Redgrave, which may, in itself, have been what pulled me in) to the ensuing dialogue, the language is both rich and real. When dealing with the complex issues that accompany poverty and the altering of social structures and values in changing times, there is no cloying or preaching note.
It’s a wonderful ride, this series–well worth a good binge!
A confirmed snow day couch potato, Sue has an affinity for the British approach to both film and TV.