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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Babies and Bicycles: watching Call the Midwife

September 15th, 2012 at 9:11

The first hint I had that “Call the Midwife,” a British TV series set in the post-War East End of London, was A Thing was when I saw all the tie-in books sprawled across the front page of Fishpond.com. Then I heard that the lead actress was being tapped for a Doctor Who episode. So it must be successful!

But the most watched BBC One drama in 10 years? Wow. Just, wow.

The main reason this is so WOW is because this is a story about women. More to the point, it’s a story about women and pregnancies and labor and children and that whole maternal merry-go-round, including the messy parts. Also, nuns on bicycles.

And it’s fascinating!

The story revolves around a small group of nurses and nuns who live in a small convent house and cover an 8 mile area of the roughest part of London in the 1950′s. The dominant narrative for most women in that area is having babies, lots of babies, and it’s the job of the midwives to provide the majority of the healthcare for those women, including clinic check ups and home deliveries.

There are doctors around, and occasional mention of the fact that the newly formed NHS provides services never before heard of such as a flying squad, ambulances and even occasional neo-natal care, but the majority of the births are in the hands of the local midwives.

I’m loving the show because it’s drama about the work of women, and while I’m sure there are a couple of romantic threads to be played out in this season (I’ve watched 2 of the 6 episodes, the first one is about to vanish from ABC’s iView) the lack of focus on romance narrative is so refreshing. Instead the first two episodes tells the story of two new midwives coming from privileged backgrounds joining the team and struggling with a massively steep learning curve. We have class issues, skills issues, the actual drama of the work itself including the relationships they form with their patients, and that’s plenty to be getting on with.

As someone who is currently living motherhood as a dominant narrative, I am also loving the way that children are factored into the story as a constant presence – because of course they have to be. They’re not there as cute quippers, but they fill the streets and the stories and the scenes because these women have so many to juggle. The first episode looked at a family where the mother was an Italian migrant who spoke no English and had borne twenty four healthy children to her husband – and while they lived in squalor that was hard for our newbie nurse Jenny to take in at first, they were happy. But the drama comes with the twenty fifth baby…

Considering how much hard work it must have been to produce the show and manage all those children (including some very new babies) I am impressed at the authenticity and the realism depicted on screen, and the matter or fact truth of these women’s daily lives. Considering that the scripts are themselves based on the memoirs of the real Jenny, midwife Jennifer Worth, I think that the production values and attitude of the show is amazing.

Also, the characters, oh. How many different kinds of female characters can you include when almost all the major speaking roles are women? We have nuns and nurses of all ages, shapes and sizes, not to mention from a variety of backgrounds, even before we get to the women of themselves and the community of mothers, wives and working women from the area. Any TV show that provides meaty roles for Pam Ferris, Jenny Agutter and Miranda Hart is doing something worthwhile to me.

Did I mention it’s also funny? The women are warm and enthusiastic and snarky, and there are plenty of moments of humour along with the emotional highs and lows – some of it quite earthy, as you might expect. The second episode, revolving around the arrival of Chummy, a highly aristocratic and barely-qualified but Good Sort nurse played by Miranda Hart shows her struggles to keep up with everyone, and that while she doesn’t bat an eyelid about the horrible conditions etc. as Jenny did in the first episode, her problems are more mundane, such as clumsiness and particularly her lack of bicycle skills, but nearly every line out of her mouth is comedy gold.

The bicycle is an essential icon of the series, with the nurses all flying every which way on wheels to get to their charges and appointments, often through streets that are thick with people and/or deep fog. They represent very much the independence and hard work of the midwives, and Chummy’s inability to ride a bike was a beautiful if quite sad at times example of how out of place she was among them, and how she was going to have to work so much harder to be a useful member of the team. Learning to ride a bike is HARD, yo!

It’s not for the faint-hearted, with some hardcore obstetrics on show, a lot of blood and gore in the bedrooms, and emotional highs and lows – as someone with a serious issue with the depiction of dead/lost babies in stories, I didn’t think I’d make it through, but the first two episodes were either done with great subtlety or were going easy on me. I suspect the latter, as this is intended to be an uplifting show for all its focus on the scary side of human biology. And so far there has been a notable restraint in the dead baby stories. Though I’m eyeing episode three with suspicion, I think that was the first one that House threw at me…

My love for social history is definitely outweighing my squeamishness, and I am loving seeing a side to women and their history that I knew little about. Call the Midwife is sentimental and squishy but balances this out with a bunch of tough love and stoic grit that for me at least cuts through the mush. (though I always cry when the baby is properly born safely, I admit it)

I’m also fascinated by the depictions of social detail of the time, the way that the men are kept in such ignorance about childbirth and associated matters, actively excluded from so much to do with their wives’ lives, and the way that so many mothers form communities together to survive the needs of childcare. The multi-generational families, where women might be giving birth while their daughter celebrates her wedding, and the children have to cook and clean for their siblings. The family eating out of a communal pot because when you have twenty four kids, why would they all get plates? The constant smoking, dear gods, the SMOKING, Mad Men is nothing on this, where we see pregnant women lighting up in the hospital clinic, doctors smoking around their patients, and nurses smoking over the dinner table.

I definitely think that anyone who writes childbirth scenes in say, fantasy fiction or anything with a historical background could benefit from watching this, because while they have quite a few advantages in the 1950′s that weren’t around in earlier centuries, there’s still a whole lot of old school midwifery on show.

And it would be nice if more fantasy writers took on board the idea that you can have a dramatic childbirth scene in a narrative even if (especially if) both the mother and child survive.

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10 Responses to “Babies and Bicycles: watching Call the Midwife”

  1. Simon Haynes Says:

    I love this series – already recommended it to several people, including my mum.

    I was born in 1967, and I remember my mum telling me men were definitely not allowed into the delivery room back then, or in 1970 when my younger brother was born. Fast-forward 30 years, when my wife gave birth to our first daughter, and not only was I allowed into the delivery room, I played catcher and was allowed to cut the cord. (It was a birthing centre run by midwives in a public hospital here in Perth.)

    But back to the series. I see it’s been sold to the US, and I’m wondering how they’ll handle the depiction of UK life in the 50′s.

  2. Sean the Blogonaut Says:

    Let’s hope the US just plays the series as is.

    I also go to watch half an episode (#amwriting) in some down time. I love Miranda Hart as well.

  3. tansyrr Says:

    I read up on a lot of the history of how childbirth has been treated when I was pregnant and was shocked at some of the changes that have happened – not always positive ones! (the chap who got a generation of mothers to restrict breastfeeding because that increased milk in COWS gets a special gold star)

    My mother told me a friend of hers in the 70′s was separated from her newborn baby for two weeks because she had a cold when the baby was born…

    But yes I think one of the biggest and most positive social changes in western culture of the last couple of generations is the inclusion of men in the birthing and new-baby phase of life, going from shutting them out to active inclusion.

    The other massive one, of course, being the availability of contraception, something a decade around the corner for the women in this show.

  4. Stephen McGann Says:

    Tansy,

    Loved this post. So glad you like the series! I think you really get to the the heart and soul of it. I play a minor part in the programme – and, as one of its rare a men (!), am privileged to be a part of something so wonderful and real and important.

    We are currently hard at work filming series two, and have been delighted by the reaction to series 1 in other parts of the world. IMO the themes in Call the Midwife are universal. And they matter.

    In my other life I am a postgrad student in Science Communication at Imperial College in London. I wrote a blog last year on the medical detail behind the show. It’s here if you’re interested:

    http://refractiveindex.wordpress.com/2012/02/07/honest-labour-accuracy-and-engagement-in-the-bbcs-call-the-midwife/

    Regards,
    Steve

  5. tansyrr Says:

    Hi Steve!

    Thanks so much for coming by. I found that article really interesting – love hearing behind the scenes stories from TV production anyway, but I had been wondering about the birth stuff in the show and it’s lovely to know that there’s such a strong sense of ethical responsibility with the team.

    Good luck with season 2, I’ll be watching!

    (Are you sad Dr Turner doesn’t get to ride a bicycle? I think he’s the only member of the cast who is without bicycle. You should complain to somebody.)

  6. Thoraiya Says:

    Ooh, celebrity drive-by!

    (As if Tansy wasn’t a celebrity already :D)

    We wanted to watch “Call The Midwife” after seeing the ads, but it’s on at the same time as “Househusbands,” which I think gives Action Man that feeling of cameraderie when most of his work friends wouldn’t know how to braid their daughter’s hair much less make them a Kung Fu Panda costume. We love “Househusbands” and can always visit the ABC shop for “Midwife” later on…the anticipation is heightened by knowing it has the Tansy seal of approval :D

  7. tansyrr Says:

    I was tempted by Househusbands after seeing all the ads during the Olympics but couldn’t quite cope with even more Channel 9. Sounds like it’s worth chasing up, though.

    The two would actually make quite an interesting juxtaposition, I expect, from the old fashioned to the contemporary looks at families & parenting, gender roles etc.

  8. Stephen McGann Says:

    lol! No – bicycle situation still dire. Although I now have a small son and car to support…

    Oh, also this:-

    “How many different kinds of female characters can you include when almost all the major speaking roles are women?”

    For me, it’s the show’s great strength. Women are actually there from top to bottom in the production. Executive producer, director, writer, actors, costume, design. The most highly-rated BBC show in a generation is one of the very few to look at a woman’s experience through a largely female gaze. And – to the astonishment of some male critics – the sky has not yet fallen in. ;-)

  9. Penni Says:

    Oh wow did not know. This sounds amazing, must must watch! Than you!

  10. Ju Says:

    Tansy thanks to your blogpost i went to watch this today and have now seen the first two episodes – and I loved them!

    All the women! All the female gaze! All the awesomeness that I didn’t really expect would actually happen!!

    Stephen: thanks for the article link and your comments, it’s a delight.

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