GPs visited at night. Nurses knew your name. Is this why a series about Fifties midwives has struck such a nerve
Success: Miranda Hart as Nurse Chummy in the BBC drama Call the Midwife
On Sunday night, the first series of Call The Midwife ended on a gas and air high. In the BBC’s period drama, yet more screaming babies were safely delivered into the grim, post-war streets of East London.
The nuns were happy, the mums blissed out, the dads in a daze as they smoked their Woodbines and worried about the future with another hungry mouth to feed.
Nurse Chummy, as played by Miranda Hart in a star role, bicycled off into the sunset, freshly hitched to PC Noakes. As grumpy Sister Evangelina noted, it just showed that there is a slipper for every old sock, an ounce of baccy for every pipe and a wet nappy for every mangle. Or something like that.
And speaking of pregnant pauses, the six-part series has delivered an unlikely, but long overdue, Sunday night ratings hit for the BBC, beating even that period drama smash of recent times over on rival ITV channel, Downton Abbey.
Indeed, once the figure of more than 11 million viewers for the last few episodes of Call The Midwife was confirmed, a second series was immediately commissioned.
Few could have imagined that an adaptation of Jennifer Worth’s memoirs of working as a district nurse in Poplar, East London, in the 1950s would be such a big success.
Yet the strong storylines about pain and poverty, about a sense of duty and selfless dedication by the various members of the medical profession struck a very big chord with the viewing public.
Even so, the secret of its success is actually quite hard to divine. After all, with the best will in the world, Call The Midwife is a bit too much like Heartbeat With Forceps for comfort.
Each episode quickly settled down to follow a familiar pattern of comforting but treacly clich. Sooner or later, you could bet your last bib that someone would shout ‘Push!’, Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter in a wimple) would always manage to weasel in another of her little sermons about duty in the community, while Jenny (Jessica Raine) listened intently after washing off her lipstick.
In the finest tradition of maternity-based drama, large pinny-wearing women hanging out the washing would suddenly clutch their stomachs and keel over like skittles as the call to the midwife went out.
Duty in the community: Jessica Raine as Jenny Lee
Rumour has it the midwives soon learned to tell how far the cervix had dilated by counting the number of pegs still clutched in her hand.
Meanwhile, useless menfolk boiled kettles while pacing outside. For six weeks on Sunday nights, babies were snatched, stillborn, unwanted, breeched and bloody. And the public couldn’t get enough of it.
Why Perhaps we are comforted and even dazzled by the thought that once upon a time, nurses and doctors and midwives would do their absolute very best for you, no matter what. In every sense of the word, they cared.
They would — I know this sounds incredible — even come to your house if there was an emergency.
They would bang on your door and charge up the stairs, without so much as a box to be ticked or a form to be filled or a health quango to assess the health and safety risks. Theirs, not yours.
And when they arrived at your bedside, there was a fair chance that they would know your name, your medical history and exactly who you were and what you did for a living. All the important stuff. The possibility of them speaking English was also high.
Comforting: The care and attention shown in the drama seems a far cry from the realities of today's NHS
Can you imagine such a thing happening today
If you have a medical crisis in the middle of the night in modern Britain, you have more chance of seeing Lord Lucan on your doorstep than your own GP.
And despite David Cameron’s pledge before he came into power to deliver an extra 3,000 midwives for the NHS, no such thing has ever happened. In fact, there is still an estimated shortfall of nearly 5,000 midwives — and this at a time when the national birth rate is at a 40-year high.
No wonder the system is creaking at the seams, or that the midwife you see at the beginning of your pregnancy is unlikely to be the same one who is there at the end. No wonder we turned our rose-tinted NHS spectacles onto glorious full beam when watching Call The Midwife.
Even the prospect of clumsy Miranda Hart turning up at your bedside with a goofy smile and a 1950s standard issue glass enema nozzle in her hand was almost a cheering one. Almost.
No one wants to turn the clock back entirely to the medical badlands of the 1950s — especially, please, please, not to 1950s births. Back then, a woman dying in childbirth, in terrible pain, was not uncommon. Babies were lost who could have been saved.
Yet despite all that, what Call The Midwife reminds us is that doctors, nurses and midwives once really were at the very heart of every community, rich or poor, for better or worse.
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You could depend on each and every one of them to do their best for you, in a selfless and noble way. People on both sides of the medical divide pulled together in a manner that seems impossible today.
Certainly, there was something very sweet and alluring about the old-fashioned midwives as depicted in this television adaptation. There were well-nourished young women of good birth, each of them facing the harshness of life and the hardships of others for the first time. ‘Your comfort is not important,’ Sister Julienne would tell them. And she was right.
Contrast that with the box-ticking, let’s-all-stand-around- the-nurses-station-all-night, me-me-me generation who terrorise the vulnerable in our medical institutions today.
Not all of them, of course. There are still a great deal of dedicated and wonderful nurses and doctors out there.
Yet to many of the sick and the vulnerable and the pregnant, hospitals have become places to fear. In fact, we don’t even have doctors and nurses to trust to look after us there any more, we have so-called ‘health professionals’, whomsoever they might be.
Any concept of selfless devotion is ground down under the arduous weight of long shifts, poor pay and a system that does not support them any more than it does the poor patients crammed into overcrowded wards.
So in many ways, it is hardly surprising that Call The Midwife swiftly gathered such a devoted army of fans. It harks back to a simpler age.
Yes, there was post-war austerity — worse, by a long chalk, than the austerity we have today. Britain was still reeling after World War II. Cities were still bomb-scarred, some foods were still rationed or in short supply, the country was on its knees.
Everyone had suffered: everyone had lost someone or something.
Yet the effects of the war concentrated everyone’s minds. People knew what was important, and they looked out for each other. Whatever was going to happen, they had to get through it together.
And it is this, perhaps, that is the secret of this period drama’s heartfelt allure. Because today, in this unsure world, we can’t really depend on anyone any more.
Call The Midwife depicts a very different world. Call the midwife You can call her an anachronism, you call her what you like. But at least, once upon a time, you could call her.