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Call the Midwife: Season One

(US DVD: 6 Nov 2012)

Based on Jennifer Worth’s engaging memoir of the same name, Call the Midwife chronicles life in the East End of London in 1957.  The series focuses on a group of nurses and midwives, some of them nuns, who live together in Nonnatus House and serve the local area of Poplar. There are between 80 and 100 babies born per month in Poplar, and these nurses and midwives aid in births that range from those that are quick and without complications to more complicated breech births and less than ideal conditions.


Newly trained nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine, narrator played by Vanessa Redgrave) serves as the introduction to Nonnatus House as she arrives in the East End for the first time. Poplar is a poor, overpopulated area that comes as a shock to Jenny, as she comes from a more privileged background and professional training in hospitals. Upon realizing that she would be working and delivering babies in such underprivileged conditions, she struggles with understanding the limitations of her environment, as well as the women who have child after child in spite of the conditions.


Jenny works with Trixie (Helen George), Cynthia (Bryony Hannah), and Chummy (Miranda Hart). The three young women are early in their careers, but working in Poplar has made them seasoned in their jobs. Their work alongside the more experienced Sisters Julienne (Jenny Agutter), Evangelina (Pam Ferris), and Bernadette (Laura Main) provide them with the further skills their initial training couldn’t. Aside from the working nuns, Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) serves as a rather unorthodox fountain of knowledge for the young midwives.


Sister Monica Joan was one of the first midwives to work in the area, but she is now older and suffering from dementia. She takes to reciting seemingly random poetry that is often eerily appropriate to the situation at hand, but she is more likely to be seen as a relic from the past by her fellow midwives. It is Sister Monica Joan who introduces Jenny to Nonnatus House and she makes a strong impression on the young nurse.


While Jenny serves as the lead of the series, narrating it in fact, it is Chummy who stands out as the heart of Call the Midwife. Chummy is physically imposing and frequently awkward, but she is also funny, gentle, and completely devoted to her calling.  She’s the nurse with the most experience, apart from the nuns, but she only barely passed her midwife exams. Her aristocratic background immediately puts Sister Evangelina on the defensive – as she grew up very poor and most closely relates to life in Poplar – but Chummy retains a self-deprecating and positive attitude throughout their interactions. Hart is a standout in playing Chummy’s vulnerability and humor, and she brings to life a wonderful character.


Dealing with women as varied as Conchita, a Spanish woman having her 25th child (you read that right), despite the fact that her very devoted husband doesn’t even speak Spanish (and she speaks no English); to Winnie, a women who unexpectedly becomes pregnant in her 40s; to Mary, a young prostitute whose pregnancy is a surprise, yet not unwanted despite the dangerous circumstances of her life. The midwives take great pride in the services they provide for the women of the area and do so despite the long hours and often emotionally draining work. Though the youngest and most inexperienced of the midwives are not always prepared for the dramatic situations they find themselves in, their training always kicks in as they attend to the women and their babies. 


While the series most surely focuses on births and the practice of midwifery, Call the Midwife also manages to tell stories of life in the East End. In addition, the lives of the nurses and midwives are front and center. Jenny Lee’s doomed romance with a married man back home, as well as the romantic affections of an old friend recently in the area offer a further glimpse into the character that is decidedly separate from how she interacts with her patients and co-workers. Similarly, Chummy’s courtship with a constable, Peter (Ben Caplan), she nearly runs over while learning to ride a bike is sweet and very funny, while also providing more insight into the character.


There is also is Trixie, boy-crazy and often outrageous, and her fellow young nurse the shy and sometimes insecure Cynthia. Cynthia shines in an episode that focuses on a pregnant woman, Margaret, who loses her child and later dies of further complications.  Her friendship with Margaret’s husband, David, is one in which she learns the value of comfort and compassion, over the medical training she’s received, affecting Cynthia greatly. However, Trixie will hopefully get a better character spotlight in the second season, as she doesn’t really get her own arc this season.


Call the Midwife manages to tell full stories that take place in a single moment. Birth, and all that it entails for the women giving birth, may only be a moment in the scheme of a full life, but the nurses and midwives play an unforgettable role. Their service, not only medical, but also supportive, is, as Jenny puts it herself, “the very stuff of life.” 


The DVD set includes only one bonus feature, a behind-the-scenes featurette entitled “Whimples, Babies, and Bicycles” that runs about ten minutes.  It’s a pretty standard featurette with cast and crew, although they do emphasize the importance of getting across the idea of great optimism in the post-war period.

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J.M. Suarez has been a contributing writer at PopMatters since 2008. She's happy to talk about TV any time, any place. Really.


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28 May 2014
These stories are always engaging, not only because midwifery in the '50s is so interesting, but also because the midwives themselves are fully realized characters.
9 Jul 2013
The ways in which these women exercised their will, both individually and collectively, spoke to the importance of their role in London's dockside community.
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