Gotham Diary:
Uplifting Inversion
12 July 2012

We’re running a little late this morning. Just a little. I thought that I’d be in bed early last night, after such an early start, but I was too elated by the two final episodes of Call the Midwife that I watched after Ryan took Will home after dinner. It took an hour to wind down, for lively memories of Jessica Raine, Miranda Hart, Judy Parfitt and the others to subside sufficiently to allow me to pick up Tessa Hadley’s new novel, The London Train. When I got into bed, I wondered if having been knocked out with genuine anaesthesia earlier in the day would blunt Lunesta’s power, but it didn’t.

Call the Midwife was one of those discoveries peculiar to the Internet Age (a fatuous term, I hope, for the rest of human time). It’s the kind of discovery that you make because it’s so effortless. Having been tipped that Miranda is a a very funny show, you see what “people who bought” it have also bought. The buying, by the way, has been going on at a site run for British consumers; miraculously, it is possible for you, a New Yorker, to buy things there, too. (I still can’t quite believe that, fifteen years in.) You have no idea what Call the Midwife will be like, but you’re willing to give it a go because this Miranda person is in it. Something, some unconscious neuronal app, assures you that the show will be interesting at least.

It takes a few weeks for you to get round to watching it. In the end, you select it from the pile in hopes of being distracted from the inadequacy of a Jell-O diet. And, boy, does it ever come through on that score.


Let me tell you the shameful thing first: Call the Midwife made me burstingly proud, at least during the first two episodes (there are six), that I had never yielded to the (very slight) temptation to follow Downton Abbey, because instead of wrapping myself up in the sociologically sordid mixings of aristocrats and their servants, back in the day when aristos had not only had servants but also much more interesting wardrobes, I was hooking myself on a paean to the National Health Service (in its early days, at least, when there was so much less that medicine could do for people, beyond keeping them clean and comfortable and deploying a few new antibiotics), cloaked in a well-oiled drama about well-brought-up young ladies serving as nurse-midwives in London’s East End in the late Fifties. It is, in effect, an inversion of Downton Abbey, because it’s the East Enders who are fortunate: despite their poverty and their ignorant ways, they have all the babies, and they have them right on the show, with an explicitness undreamable in 1957. At the appearance of each newborn, everybody laughs and cries, and so do you. It really doesn’t get more uplifting than that, not on television anyway. 

In this upside-down version of the typical Masterpiece Theatre offering, it is the proper young ladies who serve the working class. They are guided by nuns of an Anglican order who mission is the delivery of children. These nuns are a devout but worldly lot, mostly former proper young ladies themselves but not exclusively: we have the great Pam Ferris to leaven the language (which is very much, by the way, the language of Shakespeare and Keats; instead of prayers and metaphysics, the good sisters spout an English that is more robust than the vernacular without being flowery). Call the Midwife is stocked with many familiar characters, but the deck has been dealt out in a new way. Not entirely new, perhaps; you could argue, I suppose, that the show mixes EastEnders with Brother Cadfael, and tells the tale from the perspective of Pride and Prejudice. But you don’t turn to dramatic series for genuine novelty. Call the Midwife ends with a marriage, but it is a mésalliance. And yet this mésalliance, instead of being unspeakably secret (as indeed the bride’s mother would prefer it to be) is a triumph of love and courage, a marriage that might just impress Aunt Jane herself. It is the only kind of happy ending that does not involve the safe delivery of a healthy child.

Call the Midwife ran in Britain in January and February, I believe; whether it will be broadcast on this side of the Atlantic I have no idea. The DVD is already available at Amazuke, and, according to IMDb, some sort of Christmas Special is promised for the end of the year. If you have an all-regional DVD player, I urge you to order a copy of the show at once.