I have a confession to make. I blatantly ignored Call the Midwife when the first series aired. I don’t like babies and couldn’t imagine anything duller than a drama about delivering them. After all, there are plenty of documentary series about maternity wards and miracle babies littering the TV channels and I don’t watch those either. So why should a drama be any different? It was only after Series 1 ended that, ill in bed and bored, I opened iPlayer on my iPad and with little else of interest there I watched the first episode. Reader, I was hooked – I binge-watched the entire first series that day.
And so to this second series, which I tuned into religiously every week. I’m still not interested in the babies and tend to put my fingers in my ears when someone starts bellowing like a wounded cow while in the throes of labour. But it’s not really about the babies. It’s about the appalling deprivation in the East End slums and the stories of the women that exert a pull.
Other TV critics as well as my equally-addicted friends talk about its feminism and there’s no doubt it’s there in spades. It’s subtle, though – this is the 1950s, after all, before the term “women’s lib” was invented, so there’s no party line dogma being pushed out through the scriptwriting. Series 1 was a bit fluffy, but the storylines of this series pull no punches in depicting how restricted women’s lives were even as late as 1958, the year this is set.
Domestic violence and bullying is a constant theme running through many episodes, as is the prevalence of TB and the burden of large families before the Pill – episode five centres on a mother of eight who nearly dies having a backstreet abortion. The racism that was so normalised then is depicted in episode seven and even prostitution is explored in an episode where a ship’s captain is discovered to be pimping his teenage daughter to all his crew.
Raine proves once again what a good choice the casting agents made in hiring her as lead actor for the role of midwife Jenny Lee, who wrote the memoirs on which Call the Midwife is based. Hart ought to stick to straight acting – she is surprisingly good as upper-class midwife Chummy who rejects her family’s expectations. Indeed, the only thing I really dislike is the voiceovers (done by Vanessa Redgrave) by the retired Jenny Lee about the good works the midwives and nuns did back then – they come across as twee and patronising, add nothing to the drama and are at best an annoyance and a distraction.
EXTRAS ★★ A behind-the-scenes featurette; interviews with the cast and crew.