Call the Midwife, a historical drama about childbirth set in 1950s London, was an unexpected ratings smash last winter. It’s currently being repeated on Thursdays on BBC1. Emily Kenway examines its success as a mainstream drama with an, almost exclusively, female cast
“Midwifery is the stuff of life” Vanessa Redgrave’s worldly-wise voice intones as a young woman cycles through the backstreets of London. This is Jenny Lee and she is on her way to Nonatus House where she will live with a small group of nuns and midwives, administering to the colourful East End poor of 1950s London.
Jennifer Worth’s trilogy of memoirs, beginning with Call the Midwife, have sold almost a million copies in the UK since they were published in 2002. Worth herself was an interesting woman (she died in May last year); after midwifery and a stint as a ward sister, she left the medical profession and taught music for twenty five years, singing in choirs across Europe. As if that wasn’t quite enough achievement for one lifetime, she then turned her hand to writing and produced these three highly acclaimed memoirs.
In the books and the show Jenny Lee (played on TV by Jessica Raine) is a vehicle for our exploration of working class life in 1950s London. She isn’t a particularly engaging or multi-dimensional character herself, in the books or this TV version, but the lives she comes into contact with certainly are. Life is far from pretty – at times squalid – with plenty of surprises, tearjerkers and heart-warming moments to keep the series ticking over.
It’s great to see a show with three women over sixty as central characters, in the shape of the nuns that preside over Nonatus House, which includes a star turn from Judy Parfitt as the delightfully batty, cake-obsessed Sister Monica Jane who flits seamlessly from bizarre pronouncements on interplanetary activities to searing insight.
The most famous face in the show is Miranda Hart who shows herself as a wonderful character actress in the role of silver-spooned Camilla Fortescu-Chumley-Brown, or ‘Chummy’ to her friends. She quickly establishes herself at the heart of the show, stunning those around her by turning out to be something of a patient-whisperer despite her big-boned bumbling persona.
Call the Midwife certainly has that Sunday evening feeling to it; story-lines are carefully paced, the aesthetic was one of quiet elegance. But it turns out to have rather a lot to tell us beyond soggy digestives and soothing malt drinks. Each episode is a whistle-stop tour of the issues that affect the East End poor – and specifically the women and mothers – of those days. Its basis in real life experience is perhaps its greatest virtue.
In 2008 Channel 4 showed a documentary called Time Warp Wives about some women who had chosen to embrace the ‘vintage lifestyle’ and live as wholly as possible as though they are living in their chosen era.
One of these women was a 1950s gal: a housewife who kept her home immaculate and made sure she “[looked] pretty to welcome [her] husband home”. She wouldn’t even put petrol in the car because she regarded it as “unladylike”.
While she was an exaggerated version of ’50s-worship, the romanticisation of an age with clearly demarcated gender roles and notions of social propriety is everywhere from rockabilly style going mainstream to Mad Men mania. We continue to reference ’50s icons like Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner and the perceived lifestyle their images represent. But there is a huge difference between the lot of women actually living under those social mores and the golden image we like to emulate nowadays. It is exactly this fallacious image of ’50s womanhood that Call the Midwife warns against.
Here are real ’50s women: Poor women who can’t afford the luxuries we associate with the era, women with too many mouths to feed and a husband who expects to be cared for as a right, not a lifestyle choice. In the first episode, we meet Conchita, pregnant with her twenty fifth child. Another patient aged twenty three was on her fifth. One of the nuns comments that it will go on that way, like rabbits, until someone invents a ‘magic potion’. These were the pre-Pill days when sex meant children and women were often pregnant for much of their fertile years. Motherhood was not a choice but a necessity, and women’s bodies took a huge toll from the years of pregnancy and child-rearing that fell to them.
For working class women childbirth was routinely accomplished without painkillers and luxuries like clean sheets to give birth on were nowhere to be seen; hot water and a steadying midwife were all that was to hand. And these are only the women that obey society’s rules: Mary had been used as a prostitute by a man she thought was her boyfriend. Pregnant and unwed at fifteen years old she’s terrified of the “woman with a hook” who came when one of her fellow sex workers fell pregnant; “it was like a butcher’s” she sobs. Mary has two choices, equally horrendous: excruciating illegal abortion or the forcible adoption of her child.
One of the subtler and most politically apposite stars of the show is the welfare state, which was established in 1948. When a delivery gets complicated and the mother thanks God, the doctor tells her that “credit should go to the National Health – ten years ago we’d have had none of this; no obstetric flying squad, no ambulance – no chance.” The programme serves as a sobering reminder of how far our healthcare provision has come, and particularly of the difference it has made to women’s lives.
Pervading all these pocket dramas is a sense that we are being allowed access to a private realm in society; woman’s domain. Husbands were not routinely allowed in the room while their wife was giving birth and so we see just girls together, sharing in the miracle of a birth, making quips about him downstairs, guiding complex medical events with precision and self-reliance. Back at Nonatus House we have the same sense of sisterhood: This was a commune of independent women, living together and sharing their daily lives without the domination of any man.
At the start of the series, Redgrave’s voice (the voice of the older Jenny Lee) tells us that she ended up at Nonatus House because she “had side-stepped love”. This is a salient point: During the war, women had been allowed a sniff of freedom. They worked for the war effort in men’s jobs and men’s trousers. But after 1945 there was a concerted drive to get women back in the home and back in their skirts. Nice well-educated girls like Jenny Lee would have been expected to complete their schooling and soon after, find a suitable husband. The women portrayed in Call the Midwife have avoided the social pressure of dependency. Jenny Lee cycles alone through the London streets at night and goes to concerts at the Royal Festival Hall unescorted.
And during one episode, a coarse mother-to-be askes if Jenny Lee thinks she’s a “slattern”, Jenny Lee replies “As a matter-of-fact, I think you’re all heroines”.