Call the Midwife, which follows a rather jolly group of young nurses and Anglican nuns who deliver babies in the impoverished East End of postwar London, has been called the anti-Downton Abbey.
Returning this Sunday for its third season, Call the Midwife is prestige period drama with an unexpected edge. British commentator Caitlin Moran has termed it "the most radical piece of Marxist-feminist dialectic to ever be broadcast on prime-time television."
I don't know if I'd go that far -- I'm a big fan of the stealthy class warfare in the original Upstairs, Downstairs. But I would agree that Call the Midwife possesses a number of qualities rarely seen on PBS's snug Sunday evening berth, a spot usually reserved for laced-up literary adaptations, cosy village mysteries and Peter, Paul and Mary reunion concerts.
The BBC series does fulfil several of the requirements for vintage drama, such as handsome production values, spot-on character performances, and a lot of picturesque British bicycling. But underneath that respectable English pedigree, this adaptation of Jennifer Worth's nursing memoir is a bracing look at poverty, disease, slums and sweeping social change.
Downton Abbey is invested in historical details, the camera often lingering greedily on glittering antique crystal and gleaming silver, lustrous silk gowns and sparkling Art Deco jewelry. Period detail on Call the Midwife, meanwhile, tends toward meticulous depictions of insect infestations, filthy communal tenement toilets, children with rickets and women worn out with hard work and childbearing. Production design is painstaking, but unlikely to inspire magazine spreads or merchandising spin-offs.
Both Downton and Midwife are suffused with nostalgia. Downton creator Julian Fellowes is possessed by a hazy longing for the last golden afternoon of the English aristocracy. Midwife creator Heidi Thomas, on the other hand, is getting all misty-eyed about the founding of the National Health Service and the development of Britain's social safety net. In the first season, set in 1958, many of the working-class characters still remember the Dickensian horrors of the workhouse, and the senseless deaths of mothers and babies from preventable diseases and lack of basic medical care. Thomas wants people who complain about the Nanny State to remember that too.
Thomas also wants young feminists -- or even more importantly, young non-feminists -- to imagine a time before readily available birth control. Midwife might be a period piece, but it manages to launch a staunch defence of reproductive rights, simply by dramatizing the bad old days. We see a young woman who is struggling for self-sufficiency corseting herself so she won't be fired from her typing job for being pregnant. We witness working-class mothers watching their underfed children sleep eight to a bed, wondering what they'll be able to give the next one. We experience the dangerous desperation of backstreet kitchen-table abortions.
Call the Midwife does have a tendency to proclaim its own grittiness, to explore -- with a certain grim satisfaction -- the look, the sound, even the stink of extreme poverty. And the show sometimes covers topics like rape, racism and domestic violence with dutiful issue-of-the-week determination.
This is not to say that Call the Midwife is all hard-going. The show has been a big hit with audiences in both Britain and North America, and you don't last three seasons (plus Christmas specials!) by offering nothing but depressing social realism. The series is packed with compensations.
First off, babies. Most episodes are organized around "the everyday miracle of childbirth," as one character calls it. In what is basically a Pavlovian response, I cry every time Midwife shows a baby being born. (Heck, I cried when Fred the handyman's pig had piglets.) That means happy tears about every 17 minutes.
Then there's the cheeriness. All nuns and nurses are unfailingly good and understanding, and even the crosspatch nun, Sister Evangelina, comes round in the end. Episodes are framed by voiceover narration by Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the older Jennifer Worth looking back on her youthful self, and her words are always soothing, occasionally even saccharine.
The female-centred cast shares a refreshing camaraderie. The series is set at Nonnatus House, where an order of nuns is assisted by a cadre of nurses, all young and ardent and absolutely caught up in their calling. There's the competent Jenny, the glamour-puss Trixie, the shy Cynthia, and Chummy, an awkward upper-class girl with a line in posh slang.
Chummy is always uttering phrases like, "Oh, gosh, I say, how topping!" At one point, she actually says, "What ho," as if she's wandered in from filming an episode of Jeeves and Wooster on a nearby soundstage. But of course, next scene she's likely to be found up to the elbows in a particularly tricky breech birth, surrounded by a heap of bloody cloths and a woman screaming in animal pain.
This is the eccentric brilliance of Call the Midwife. In an unlikely but oddly effective tonal mix, the show combines the challenging and the comforting, mixing up stern left-wing lessons and jolly good fun, stark historical realism and swoony period flavour.
One minute the East End feels like a vibrant, resilient neighbourhood full of cheeky Cockneys, and the next minute it seems to be reeking of squalor and despair. Somehow, both of these views feel true.
"We don't get Hollywood endings here," one of the nuns tells a naive young nurse. Except, well, they do. Most episodes of Midwife delve into hellish human problems and then resolve into happy endings. The most harrowing day at Nonnatus House ends with everyone having a cup of Horlicks, a stodgy but nourishing hot milk drink.
As the third season heads into the Swinging '60s, we can expect more trouble, more strife, and more difficult births. So, call the midwife. And pass the Horlicks.