A new six-part BBC TV series that aired in the UK beginning in January, Call the Midwife, will start airing in the U.S. on PBS this Sunday. Written and directed by women (Heidi Thomas and Philipa Lowthorpe), it’s based on the memoir of Jennifer Worth, a British nurse who served as a midwife in East London in the 1950s, during the aftermath of World War II.
In the pilot, we’re introduced to bright-eyed Jenny Lee (played by Jessica Raine), who joins Nonnatus House, where a group of older nuns and younger women serve as midwives in their poverty stricken neighborhood. Jenny and her peers are a new class of women, who have postponed or perhaps sidestepped lives as wives and mothers, opting for a career instead.
Through the course of the episode , we see the conditions of being pregnant at that time and in that place: There are a lot of sanitation issues and there’s no birth control–just child after child. We see the contrast between the inexperienced midwife and her clients, who are old pros at delivering children. And the technology is limited–the scene in which Jenny reviews her medical kit, complete with glass rectal tube, left me grateful for the plastic stirrups in my gyno’s office that don’t make my feet cold.
The central patient in the pilot is Conchita Warren, a woman from Spain who speaks no English and is married to a Spanish Civil War vet from Britain who speaks no Spanish. [SPOILER ALERT IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW THE PLOT]. They’re completely in love, and she’s pregnant with her 25th child. When Conchita suffers a mild concussion as a result of a fall, forcing her into early labor, Jenny rushes to her home to deliver the baby. She needs a doctor, Jenny says. It’s the first reference we hear–and, later, see–of the medical industry, hospitals and men in white coats. And while those coats show up, urging the mother to take her and her baby to a hospital, they seem out of place. Perhaps it’s because the doctors are all men, or perhaps because, until this point in the episode, it’s the mothers who seem to know what’s best for themselves. But British culture is changing, even in this moment, as the doctors and Jenny urge Conchita to go to the hospital, because that’s where premature babies and mothers with concussions have a chance of surviving. Conchita nonetheless clutches her child and asserts herself: The child stays with me, she tells them.
Jenny is instructed to visit Conchita three times a day until the baby reaches a healthy weight, which sounds completely normal in the show and completely shocking to a modern audience. For many of us today, the idea of having so much personalized care would be reserved for the few who could afford it. Here, in 1950s East London, that kind of care is assumed and accessible to all.
The show drives home the intimate and personalized nature of midwifery and the reality that such care was replaced by advancements of medical technology and a male-dominated industry. We’re able to see how different the culture of childbearing was–one with women caregivers, home visits and so much more trust in, and compassion for, pregnant women and their bodies. The midwives aren’t the heroines, Jenny tells a woman who suffers a miscarriage, the mothers are. It’s a bit overly sentimental, but it’s true, and it’s a message I suspect will carry through the rest of the series.
If you enjoy it, there will be more: A second season of the series already been commissioned.