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Monday, August 11, 2014

Call the Midwife

I am in tears after having spent the first week of my summer engrossed in three seasons of the BBC drama, Call the Midwife. Truly, I have never seen a television serial more heart-felt and touching than this story of a group of young English midwives and Catholic nuns living together in the poorest parts of London. The setting is the late 50s, where hair styles and fashion still harken to the dowdy post-WWII days. That, and their meager living quarters are the antithesis to the typical BBC drama we Americans are used to viewing, except in a Dickens tale. Normally, we like seeing castles and the grand, stately homes of the aristocracy, such as the Granthams of Downton Abby. But the Granthams aren’t half as interesting as these sweet, giving ladies whose calling is to help bring new life into the world. I feel like I’ve just said good-bye to life-long friends who I may never see again. Season four airs in spring, 2015, and that seems to be eons from now.

Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife is based on a slice of history that is foreign to the typical American. Many of us have heard of women giving birth through the services of a midwife, but in the US, it is a bit unusual and odd. Not so in the UK. The practice became accepted during WWII when British doctors were scarce and women had to rise to the occasion and perform duties typically relegated to men. During my five years in London in the late 90s, I knew several women who gave birth through midwives.

Confession: the first episode turned me off, and I promptly “tuned out” about halfway through. Watching poor English women endure excruciating pain without the comforts of modern medicine AND in extreme unsanitary conditions did not make for a relaxed time of entertainment in my mind. So I put this series aside for about a year, ignoring my mother’s pleas to give it another chance. Eventually, having exhausted all the other BBC serials on Netflix, I did just that, forcing myself through the first episode. Fortunately, by the end of episode two, I was hooked.

What is the appeal? As always with a good serial, it is the characters. Each episode is introduced and closed with the haunting voiceover of Jenny Lee (Vanessa Redgrave), who recounts her memories as a midwife during post-Korean War days. Naïve and idealistic, Jenny (played by up-and-coming A-lister, Jessica Raine) begins her story arriving at an old, crumbling building in London’s East End. Cold and unassuming, Nonnatus House is actually a warm, loving environment, run by four unique, yet quirky nuns. One of my favorites is Sister Julienne (played by Jenny Agutter), who is thin and beautiful and wears a perpetual smile while espousing wisdom and knowledge at every turn. In contrast, my other favorite, Sister Evangeline (played by Pam Ferris), is thick and burly and normally bears a sour countenance. But underneath her bossy attitude is a heart of gold and plenty of her own form of street-smarts advice to carry the day. I wasn’t as much of a fan of Sister Monica Joan (played by Judy Parfitt) and Sister Bernadette, but they do add a bit of flavor to the ensemble.

The true strength of the show is in the diverse personalities of the four young midwives living under the authority of Sisters Julienne and Evangeline. First, there is our heroine, Jenny, who is gorgeous, smart, and self-sufficient; Trixie (Helen George), who is sexy and sassy with a full head of blonde curls and plenty of brains to go with it; and Cynthia (Bryony Hannah), who is plain, sweet, and unassuming. I absolutely adored those three characters, but the one that stole my heart is Chummy, played by the famous UK comedienne, Miranda Hart.

Standing over six feet tall, with glasses, slouched shoulders, and a botched short hair-do, Chummy (real name Camilla) is the most unlikely character on a television serial with whom anyone could imagine falling head-over-heels in love (even my hubby adores her!). Born from aristocracy, Chummy hasn’t a lick of poise or physical attractiveness in keeping with her station in life. Think lumbering ugly duckling, awkward nerd, and drag queen lookalike all rolled into one. Yet, she is charming, adorable, full of wit and encouragement, and likes herself enough to romance the local constable (Ben Caplan). Her character is a huge reason the show has been so successful (drawing 10 million viewers per episode). Personally, I think it is because Chummy represents the beauty of a woman emanating from the inside out and not solely from the external as the world demands.

For those of you who need your British love interests, there are plenty of handsome suitors to satisfy. And you’ll certainly see more than your fair share of sweet babies being born, AND be very thankful for the blessing of epidurals that are common today. In addition, the drama is top-notch, including a sprinkling of mystery, edge-of-your-seat suspense, laughs, and spiritual reverence toward God and Jesus (very rare today). But mostly this show oozes a sweetness that isn’t contrived or false—it reveals the power of the love of a group of very different women who become soul sisters by living out a life that is unusual and sacrificial.

I cannot recommend this series enough! Make sure you get past the first episode—you won’t be sorry! 

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