OxStu TV: Call the Midwife

Every couple of days or so, I’ll be frantically bashing out a train wreck of an essay when my panic will be interrupted by the sound of screams, bellows and grunts that send chills down my spine. Is it the sound of a wild boar being mauled to death by a rabid wolf? Is it the sound of a neighbour getting lucky (oh please god no)? No, it’s my housemate watching ‘One Born Every Minute’ again.

There’s been an upsurge of the number of birthing shows on TV, fuelled by some sadistic urge to watch women writhe in the midst of their own bodily fluids for a few minutes, then burst into tears at how happy they are while holding something squirmy and purple. All accompanied by soothing background music, and a sympathetic voiceover which would be significantly improved if they got the Big Brother guy to do it- “Hour 3 in the maternity ward. Melinda has just shat herself.”

You can probably tell that these programs aren’t really my thing, so it was with some trepidation that I approached ‘Call the Midwife’. It’s being billed the BBC’s surprise hit of 2012, which considering we’re only in February seems a bit presumptuous. However, I needn’t have worried- ‘Call the Midwife’ is at the other end of the childbirth spectrum. When the time comes for the mothers to pop, it’s neatly sanitised- the women lie there and grunt for a bit while the midwife yells “push! No, don’t push! Wait! Push!”, while bodily fluids are kept to a tasteful minimal.

‘Call the Midwife’ is a drama set in the post-war East End of London, based on the real memoirs of a midwife. It’s a terrible, terrible world where every single woman seems to be at least 6 months pregnant. Those hoping for some gritty realism, however, will be disappointed. The plot and scripting is sentimental to the extreme, and keeps using phrases like “indomitable spirit” (blech). The chief culprit here is coincidentally the chief nun, Sister Julienne, who can be relied upon to deliver an insightful platitude or moral message every episode. There’s also some shameless and unsubtle NHS plugging- all variations on “just think [insert name here], if we didn’t have the NHS she’d be dead”.

This mawkish dialogue is a shame, as it distracts from what is an otherwise well-written show. The predominantly female cast all deliver strong performances, with Pamela Ferris stealing every scene she’s in as the cutting Sister Evangelina. Nonetheless, the series falls down as we’re subjected to a never-ending cycle of various big-hearted cockneys that wander in and out of the plot, all narrated from the point of view of Jenny Lee- beautiful, but just a little bit bland. The strongest plots are those that take risks and introduce a little bit of darkness to this otherwise rose-tinted world: the standout episode so far has to be Episode 4, which saw a stolen baby, a grieving, unhinged prostitute and a slowly dying young wife. When the script strays away from black and white morality and stale platitudes, it distinctly improves.

‘Call the Midwife’ is perfect Sunday night TV- a bit soppy and at times insipid, but nonetheless feel good viewing. It’s not going to change your life, but it won’t ruin your evening either. The series is still available on iplayer, and after a hasty rescheduling to avoid clashing with Coronation Street its final episode will broadcast this Sunday at 8.30pm on BBC 1.