Recap and review of Call the Midwife – Christmas Special 2012:
When I came to write this article, I realized that there wasn’t any way for this to be a recap of Call the Midwife, in a traditional sense, so much as a review of why it’s so damn effective at what it does. The series often deals in treacly, saccharine sentimentality. This is not meant to be a derogatory observation, as I wouldn’t want this series to be any other way. But I often find myself wondering why, exactly, I don’t find the show’s occasionally-sappy storylines obnoxious in the way I might if a show was this oppressively optimistic about the way in which the world works. There’s absolutely darkness in this show, don’t get me wrong. There’s death, and pain, and tragedy, and the immensity of loss. But it’s all couched in the rhetoric of nature, as a process that the world is working out. And that lends the show a unique, almost uncommon sense of warmth. Yet the series is so much more than the warmth it presents, owing to the harsher realities at its heart, having been based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who actually toiled in the poverty of East London as a midwife in the late 1950s. There’s an authenticity there that sets the series apart, as it’s not only family entertainment, but it’s routinely edifying in what a person can learn about life and death, of the unchangeable condition called existence.
But identifying the show as nothing but a delivery system for these weighty themes would be doing it a disservice, since the show is often far funnier than one would expect, coming from a show that is ostensibly about the midwives of the impoverished. Chummy (Miranda Hart) is a character that is initially the subject of scorn around the neighborhood, yet through even-temperament and good humor, she’s risen above others’ attempts to weigh her down with comments about her appearance, and as we start off the episode, we find that she’s truly happy in her marriage to PC Noakes (Ben Caplan). It’s her ability to roll with the punches that gives the show its soul. This is to say nothing of the absurdity of the clumsy, reserved Chummy putting on a Nativity play with a bunch of Cub Scouts. And as cruel as it might sound to say, there’s a kind of comical elegance to watching Chummy be clumsy, whether it’s in how she falls off her bike, or in how she ropes others into her sphere of silliness, such as the inexhaustible stern Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), the subject of Call the Midwife‘s first fart gag (and damned if it’s not the first time I’ve ever laughed at that kind of comedy, to boot).
A fair portion of the Christmas special is divided between Chummy’s frivolities and a pair of cases that best exemplify the show’s sentimentality. Nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) is being followed by an elderly woman named Mrs. Jenkins, who may or may not be a vagrant, but is definitely on the scroogey side. Chummy insists the woman “piddles in gutters”, by way of warning Jenny to keep away from the cantankerous crone, as if Jenny is about to go ignoring a needy old woman on Christmas after all her encounters with the similarly displaced over the course of series one (particularly old Joe Collette, the late war vet with whom Jenny developed a brief but powerful friendship). This plotline comprises the episode’s holiday narrative, which imbues the special with a goodwill vibe that is made all the more poignant when you think that kindness and charity, care and attention, and love and sacrifice aren’t simply Christmastime pursuits for these women.
Series one stands as evidence of the year-round contributions of these midwives and nuns to bettering the lot of the impoverished of their neighborhood, in ways both big and small. Call the Midwife has been remarkably successful for BBC, and I genuinely feel that much of its success is predicated upon how rewarding and life-affirming it often can be for the viewer. Sure, there’s a lot going on underneath the surface: themes of class conflict, issues of politics and poverty, religions and romance, and the interminable cycle of life and death, all wrapped into one cohesive unit. But the series is, first and foremost, a comfortable, inviting retreat to a simpler (though still irreducibly complex) time. It’s a truly beautiful show, and what’s beautiful about it is that this could have been an episode from any time in the year, not just Christmas.
It really is a show about women, and the evolution of their role in society, with the midwives affecting change in their world as the people with whom they come into contact affect change on theirs. The episode’s B-plot follows the pregnancy of an underage teen, and it’s a story that, with the exception of several key differences, has more or less been done on this series already. Yet it still resonates, because there’s a sense of mutual understanding, of a shared bond in womanhood that lends the show a powerful identity. I really can’t think of any show on television, on either side of the pond, that illustrates the agency of women in their own lives, and in their world. It’s a show that makes a strong case for female empowerment, even while, as a byproduct of its setting, it wouldn’t really be about that at all. This is what I mean when I say that the show has a lot going on, far more than what any single episode presents as its A, or B, or even C stories. Call the Midwife is thematically rich, with a capital R.