“Call the Midwife,” the latest UK import to be broadcast stateside on PBS, is being heralded by some as the new “Downton Abbey,” or at least a well enough replacement to fill the period piece hole in our hearts until that soap’s third season makes its way here. It’s true that this new miniseries, which premiered on the BBC in January and is based on the memoirs of midwife Jennifer Worth, is engaging, but this tale of midwives and nurses in East London in the late 1950s isn’t as comfortable to watch as “Downton.” There are no beaded frocks to covet or out-of-touch aristocrats to bemuse us. Here, we aren’t getting a glimpse at the life of the rich and those that serve them; we’re examining the poor and those that try to help them. The series may run smoothly, with a pleasant score and detailed costuming and sets, but the subject matter isn’t always pretty and certainly isn’t for the squeamish. Say goodbye to formal dinners and affairs with chauffeurs and hello to stillborn babies and genital warts.
Created by Heidi Thomas, “Call the Midwife” is thought-provoking, more so than “Downton” or most other period series that capture Americans’/Anglophiles’ imaginations. (See: the contraception debates that still abound.) The women of the East End’s Poplar district in 1957 rely on the nuns and nurses at Nonnatus House, who serve as midwives, to help them through their numerous pregnancies. As Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) tells newcomer and lead character Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), between 80 and 100 babies are born each month in Poplar. “Soon as one vacates its pram, another one takes its place,” she says. “And thus it was and ever shall be — until such time as they invent a magic potion to put a stop to it.” Worth based Lee, 22, on herself, with the nurse reporting for duty at Nonnatus House not realizing it is a convent. Vanessa Redgrave narrates the coming-of-age tale as an elder Jenny, looking back on her innocence with amazement — “I must have been mad,” she says, wondering why she thought serving as a midwife was the easier of the options before her instead of, say, an air hostess or model.
Jenny is welcomed to the house by her new colleagues: Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), one of the first women in Britain to qualify as a midwife who is now retired, eccentric and quite possibly somewhat senile; Sister Evangelina, the no-nonsense one who comes from a poor background; Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), the sweet Sister-In-Charge at the house and ideal mentor to the young nurses; Sister Bernadette (Laura Main), the youngest of the nuns; and the secular nurses, Cynthia Miller (Bryony Hannah), Trixie Franklin (Helen George) and Camilla “Chummy” Cholomondely-Browne (Miranda Hart). In the pilot, the conflict mainly consists of Jenny adapting to her surroundings and new role. She is shocked by the deplorable conditions the residents of Poplar endure, from overcrowded flats and dirty streets and the routine of welcoming baby after baby into their lives. Two extreme examples are presented: One woman, Conchita, is pregnant with her 25th child; another, Pearl, has several children and is pregnant again, but it is her lack of personal hygiene that stuns Jenny. At a clinic the midwives have set up, Pearl shrugs off the news she has Syphilis (and the smell released once she removes her underwear nearly knocks Jenny over). “I’m sorry, I didn’t know people lived like this,” Jenny tells Sister Julienne, who takes over examining Pearl. “But they do,” the sister says, “and it’s why we’re here.”
Trixie refers to the women of Poplar as “heroines,” admiring their bravery for bringing life again and again into such poor conditions, and soon Jenny is singing their praises as well. After Conchita sustains a concussion from a fall, her body goes into delivery prematurely and her child is stillborn — until it isn’t. The baby, a boy, actually lives, shocking Jenny and Conchita’s husband, Len, who brought Conchita back to England with him after the Spanish Civil War and doesn’t speak any Spanish. The doctors who arrive to care for Conchita can’t persuade the mother to let them care for the boy at a hospital, and somehow, the baby survives and hopefully thrives. Pearl, who earlier at the clinic didn’t mind that one of her children was urinating all over the floor, has a miscarriage. She’s discouraged but determined to carry on, and during a home visit Jenny tells her she’s a heroine. This makes Pearl smile, and heaven knows these women need encouragement. At times like this, the series appears to have too rosy of a worldview, but perhaps it is simply withholding judgment.
The life-and-death stakes are high in “Call the Midwife,” and the individual cases of expectant mothers provide plenty of drama to fuel the miniseries. Jenny, as a character, could use a bit of livening up — perhaps the love interest she references as being unable to both have and give up will make an appearance. Love is the central theme, as Redgrave’s voiceover let it be known at the premiere’s end: “I had begun to see what love could do. Love brought life into the world, and women to their knees. Love had the power to break hearts and to save.” Love doesn’t solve everything — the district’s living conditions don’t suddenly improve, and families keep producing yet more mouths to feed — but its presence can make life durable. Still, that’s if love, much less hope, is present. “Call the Midwife” would do well to also look at the cases in which it is not.
“Call the Midwife” airs at 9/8C Sundays through Nov. 4 on PBS.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio.