Monday, May 06, 2013

Call The Midwife: A Review

You may or may not have noticed (from my irregular blogging, Fb, and twitting hours) that I am suffering from insomnia of epoch-shaking proportions these days.

Well, I am.

Luckily, there is more media than ever before in the history of homo sapiens to keep me occupied at three a.m. in the morning.

These past two nights I watched (in a marathon of watching) Call the Midwife, which I am recommending to you with only tiny caveats.

This show comes to us from the BBC, so we're already inclined to like it, and we are not disappointed.  High production values, lovely attention to details, and from the opening scene -- when our young midwife nurse who has just qualified comes down to the East End of London in 1957 (pre-birth control era, pre-legal abortion, just barely post NHS) to find she is to work out of a convent -- we are hooked.

Our two main characters are Jenny Lee and Chummy, both of whom are new midwives -- they have just qualified -- and both of whom are new to the world of the East End.  Jenny Lee is upper-middle-class, fleeing some sort of love affair; Chummy (Camilla Fortesque-Cholmeley-Browne) is very much upper class. The other characters are mostly nuns, except for two other lay-midwives who have been in the East End for quite some time.

So it's partly a fish-out-of-water story, and partly the drama of the East End, and partly nostalgia/horror, and it plays really well.  I won't give spoilers, except to say that Chummy is the reason I like the show as much as I do.  Unlike Jenny, who is conventionally attractive and has a conventional storyline (oh, which boy should I love? Oh should I chose work or true love?), Chummy is very much not the usual story.  She is clumsy, unattractive (very tall, overweight, not witty), but deeply good-hearted and forthright. Her entire lack of self-pity and her determination to soldier on makes us like her character more and more as the show progresses.

Also, we're shown through her character that clumsy and tall and kind of gawky and sort of ugly does not mean stupid and useless and loser.  I really, really like this in the show.

The caveat: The show is kind of sentimental, and though it hints at the real costs of a world without birth control, it seldom delivers on the actual impact.

For instance: we're shown a woman early on who has had 22 pregnancies, and is now pregnant with her 23 child.  All 22 of those children are shown as healthy and happy and fine and well-fed.  The woman herself is beautiful and slim and lovely and young-looking.  The 23 child delivers a month early: but this is fine!  It survives!  So does the mom.

For instance: We're shown multiple women in their forties who find to their dismay that they are pregnant once again.  But!  All these pregnancies turn out fine, and the women end up happy with their babies.

For instance: We're told that a hundred to a hundred and fifty babies a month are born in the East End, and we're shown swarms of children running the streets, but all these kids are also shown (usually) as happy and healthy and well-fed.  Only very seldom do we see any kids or their parents unhappy or dirty.  No one ever seems unhappy about having yet another baby.

For instance: although we do see one case of eclampsia, it is in a rich young woman who has moved down to the East End for reasons that are not at all clear.

One exception -- an Irish fifteen year old prostitute who flees her pimp who would have forced her to have an abortion; the nuns help her hide from the pimp, and we do see that the Church takes her baby from her against her will; and we do see the emotional fall-out from this.

But aside from this quibble, it's worth watching.

Update: I've watched the second season now, and that season is more realistic about the effect of living in a world without birth control (although, as Historiann notes in her comment below, it frequently undercuts its realism with an unrealistic happy ending).  For instance, there is an episode where an impoverished woman in her forties with eight children finds herself pregnant with yet again, and tries multiple ways to abort the fetus, before finally hiring an back-alley abortionist.  The episode is quite realistic about everything a woman in her situation would have suffered, right up until the final scene, which goes for a an unlikely (semi)-happy ending.

Still! Passes the Bechdel test, multiple women as the main characters, all the central stories are about women, all the main characters -- women characters -- have not just jobs but professions, and in one plot strand, a main character takes a position elsewhere, and her husband leaves his job to follow her. Nor is that presented as at all odd or unlikely or remarkable.

All this, plus a great deal of commentary (not beaten into us, just as part of the plot) on women being seen as and treated as and expected to be part of the sex class, and what results from that.

Yes, well worth watching.


Bardiac said...

Chummy is great, isn't she? The actor playing this character rocks the role!

delagar said...

Yes! I meant to say something about that. The actor really does a fantastic job.

Unknown said...

i saw that on netflix yesterday... i'll have to give it a try.

Anonymous said...

I'm a complete sucker for period dramas. And this is the decade I was born into and a neighborhood that's only marginally less middle class than the one I grew up in. So I love it.

Especially love Chummy. She isn't the petite, beautiful girl in life any more than her character is on the show. And it's amazingly cool to see how awesome she is. --L

Historiann said...

I've only seen a few episodes, but one of the two I've seen was about the birth of a child with spina bifida, and it presented a pretty complex vision of how the child would have been seen by the various East Enders--from the older nun who said "in my day, we would have let the child die," to the nasty neighbors, to the mixed emotions of both parents as they consider institutionalizing the child.

But in the end, as you suggest: they keep the baby and everyone is happy! (Which pretty much undercuts the complexity that dominated the first 5/6 of the show.)

I didn't realize the show was set in '57, when presumably postwar rationing was over. Maybe those children were actually as well fed as the child actors playing them today. I've personally been more taken with The Bletchley Circle, which is about four women who were codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII who regroup to solve the mystery of a serial killer in 1953. (The first two episodes were much better than the third, which was a bit of a snore by comparison.) In any case, the women in TBC are still using ration books.

delagar said...

Historiann -- Thanks for mentioning that! It was an episode I hadn't seen. This led me to go hunt out the whole new second season on Amazon Streaming.

Plus! A Christmas special!

Historiann said...

Where are you finding a second season & a Christmas special??? I can only find season 1 on Amazon or netflix. (Feel free to email me if you don't want this to jack your thread,


delagar said...

Amazon Instant video -- it's instant streaming, $1.99/episode.

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