Nostalgia as political comment – has the BBC been rather clever with “Call the Midwife”?

You don’t normally think of Sunday-night TV drama as a hotbed of political subversion. The usual fare served up is on the soapy side, with the focus on the caring professions and a heavy dose of sanitized nostalgia. Much loved examples include All Creatures Great and Small and Heartbeat, which followed the career of a rural police officer and his GP wife in a Yorkshire village through the Swinging Sixties.

But I think that the BBC might have done something rather clever with Call the Midwife. It was always a fair bet that Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of her experiences as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s would be an obvious choice for the Sunday evening slot, even before Miranda Hart joined the cast in the second episode. It’s warm, dramatic, funny and surprisingly gritty. Obviously, one can always pick holes – the hairstyles aren’t all authentic, and was that really a Jumbo Jet flying over in 1954? Obviously, some of the babies are too big – we’d hardly want neonates spending long hours under the TV lights – and everything’s too clean, and hardly anybody seems to smoke. Nevertheless, it’s surprising how well they’ve recreated the birth scenes, particularly given the show’s pre-watershed slot.

It’s ideal heartwarming telly for Austerity Britain (21st century, that is) and it’s already been commissioned for a second series, making this the biggest commitment Auntie has made to new drama for a good while. That must have something to do with the audience of over 9 million – well up into Doctor Who numbers – for the opening episode.

Socially, there’s some willingness to tackle awkward themes. Miranda Hart’s spot-on performance as the ungainly, frightfully posh Chummie, more at home on a horse than on a bike, is pitch perfect and points out the shifting perceptions of class in the immediate post-war years, whilst being unafraid to flag up the spectre of inverted snobbery (Sister Evangelista can’t stand her). And, while we’ve yet to see a black woman give birth, there has been acknowledgement of the ingrained, often unintentional racism of the period – we’ve seen one of the nuns stitching a gollywog doll, and Chummie remarks that her call to be a missionary is based on the fact that “whenever I pray, I see little black faces staring up at me.” (To which one of the good Sisters replies, “Well, you don’t have to go far from here to see that.”)

What is more noticable to me, if not to the generally enthusiastic critics, is that this series is a walking, talking, lactating commercial for the then-brand-new National Health Service and the Welfare State. In Episode One, the mother of a premature baby was told that once he would have had no chance, but because of the NHS he could be offered the very best hospital care. The following week, a woman with a body deformed by rickets, who had lost four previous babies, was successfully delivered of a daughter by Caesarian Section – again, it was made clear, thanks to the NHS. Not only that, but at her ante-natal examination the presiding Doctor went out of his way to tell posh Chummie that the woman’s body had been deformed by poverty, lack of sunlight and malnutrition – all conditions that would shortly be eradicated, thanks to the Welfare State.

Oh, sweet optimism! Is it a complete coincidence, one wonders, that this is being transmitted, almost to the day, as legislation before Parliament threatens the dismantling of large chunks of said welfare-system and the very existence of the NHS? And what about immigration? That premature baby mentioned earlier was the 23rd child of a blissfully happy Anglo-Spanish marriage. The story is right there in the original book, but not in the opening chapters. I can’t imagine the Daily Mail being over the moon about that.

Perhaps the Mail is onto them. Sandra Parsons has written about the sad case of the 15 year old girl lured into prostitution, rescued and allowed to have her baby in a Catholic refuge but forced to give her up, for admittedly sound reasons. It’s difficult to pin down the tone of Parsons’ critique. Obviously, she likes the show, but she’s firmly on the side of the Catholics in this one.

It wouldn’t surprise me if this isn’t the last time the Mail mentions Call the Midwife, and next time their response may well be less positive. I actually think that, for once, the BBC’s been rather clever. Nobody wants TV shows to have to pass the commercial test more than the Tories – Cameron recently suggested that, basically, if British films weren’t going to be massively popular and make a mint, guaranteed, they weren’t worth investing taxpayers’ money in. Now, in a rather delightfully Gilbertian example of being hoist on their own petard, the Tories may live to curse this cosy show that the BBC has slipped into the schedules right under their noses. You could hardly get better propaganda for the NHS, or for the Welfare State. And it’s very watchable, too.


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