Call the Midwife is the BBC’s biggest drama hit, in ratings terms, in decades. It pulls in upwards of 10 million viewers and it’s not hard to see why – it’s perfect Sunday night period fare, more demanding than soapy rival Downton Abbey but not overly so. The apparent cosiness sits only on the surface. The storylines still revolve around pregnancies and babies but the interjected social commentary about poverty and deprivation, changing social mores and the gradual shift for women away from being a Stepford wife into the possibilities of wider fulfilment seem much spikier in this third series.
Perhaps it’s because scriptwriter Thomas ran out of material from Jenny Lee’s original memoirs. Most of this series comprises new scripts by her with the exception of Jenny’s personal arc, which is in the last of her three volumes. Her hand has been freed to create material fresh with a modern perspective but, to Thomas’s credit, her newly crafted plotlines fit seamlessly into Worth’s own anecdotes. Her careful attention to dialogue means, too, that none of the characters speak using current parlance.
The personal developments for the main characters resonate most in this third series. Jenny’s burgeoning romance with architect Alec is brought to an end when he dies as the result of a freak workplace accident and her grief is inconsolable. Meanwhile Chummy’s ghastly distant and obnoxious mother reappears, estranged from her husband and penniless. She has terminal cancer and the pair of them forging a new understanding as Lady Browne lies dying in Chummy’s spare bedroom is almost unbearably touching.
There’s a sense midway through this series that cast members are poised to leave. Jenny exits on compassionate leave after Alec’s death and at almost the same time head nun Sister Julienne departs from illness. New midwife Patsy joining the midwives seems to confirm this and there’s a sense that Jenny is never coming back. Sister Julienne returns fairly quickly but while Jenny does reappear, she decides in the last episode to work with the dying instead.
Jessica Raine’s departure was not unexpected – her star has been on the rise in the last two years, with parts in Doctor Who, Line of Duty and An Adventure in Space and Time. Incomer Patsy (Emerald Fennel) is an inspired piece of writing (and casting) – a strong woman from an unconventional background who fits right in with Thomas’s original scripts. And once again, Miranda Hart as Chummy demonstrates her considerable talents as a straight actress. The narration by Vanessa Redgrave as “mature Jenny” continues to grate – its saccharine homilies jar increasingly and ditching this aspect would improve Call the Midwife considerably.
EXTRAS ★★ Interviews with Jessica Raine, Helen George, Miranda Hart and Bryony Hannah, plus producer Pippa Harris.