Call the Midwife Notes #2: Style and meaning; or, Trixie’s fingernails

DAVID ROLINSON

Call the Midwife series two episode five Writer: Heidi Thomas; Director: China Moo-Young

Call the Midwife often makes skilful use of editing to interweave its lead characters with its guest characters. This aids storytelling, heightens our understanding of characters in their social environment and at times even complicates the position of the midwives in that environment. This essay will explore editing and other aspects of form in two sequences from Call the Midwife series two episode five, to explore the ways in which the problems of guest character Nora Harding are interwoven with two lead characters: the first sequence is a well-executed piece of storytelling, whilst the second is an extraordinary use of technique to devastating effect.1

Introduction

Nora Harding (Sharon Small) is married with eight children and is pregnant again but makes it clear to midwife Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) that she wants to get rid of the baby: this makes Jenny uncomfortable and the systemic limits of her role become clear as her diligent advice about getting contraceptive advice after the birth clashes with her witnessing of Nora’s overcrowded rat-infested flat. The council cannot house eight children – they insist that the family cannot be relocated until a four-bedroom house is available, but they are not building such houses – and the National Health Service does not currently cover contraception. Nora cannot cope and is suicidal. She ultimately takes the only action that she can given the laws of the time: illegal abortion.

Call the Midwife Notes #1: Why Sunday nights?

DAVID ROLINSON


Call the Midwife (BBC One, 2012-present) is the best drama series of the decade: one of contemporary television’s toughest, most consistently socially-concerned programmes. It is often misunderstood: despite a few perceptive pieces such as Emily Nussbaum’s description of the devastating fifth series as ‘sneaky radicalism’ in the New Yorker, many critics have passed over it as twee or nostalgic or have omitted it from drama-of-the-year polls.1 These critical tendencies say less about the programme than about perceptions of the timeslot: Sunday night, 8.00pm, on BBC One. Therefore, my post, the first of an occasional series on one of my favourite dramas, looks at the current status of the series, taking as a starting point critical responses to its Sunday night slot.

Sunday

The makers of Call the Midwife themselves had reservations when the BBC proposed that slot. In 2012, Heidi Thomas, the creator of the series (developed for Neal Street Productions from the books by Jennifer Worth), recalled that:

Experiments in colour and electronic film systems: George’s Room (1967)

DAVID ROLINSON AND SIMON COWARD

Half-Hour Story Writer: Alun Owen; Producer: Stella Richman; Director: Alan Clarke

BTVD_George's Room_1How and why is George’s Room in colour? Anyone coming to George’s Room knowing the rest of director Alan Clarke’s plays for Rediffusion’s Half-Hour Story strand thanks to the BFI’s Alan Clarke at the BBC set might wonder why this is the only one in colour and why it looks so different from the others.1 In comparison with the inventive compositions, fast cutting (vision mixing) and ambitious camerawork of plays like Stella, George’s Room seems highly conventional in its largely static compositions and its alternation between mid-shots, close-ups and wide two-shots: a reviewer at the time said that the play ‘has almost no movement’ and ‘could easily pass as a radio play’, watching characters ‘speaking or samlistening’.2 In the circumstances this is perhaps unsurprising. Clarke directed this colour version at Wembley Studios, using the same electronic multi-camera set-up as his black and white Half-Hour Story plays. However, George’s Room adapted this set-up in order to use ‘E-cam’, a system designed to make filmed drama in television studios. There were similar attempts to combine television and film technology elsewhere in the television and cinema industries – as we shall see – but Rediffusion were pioneering the integration of film and the electronic multi-camera studio. George’s Room was the main pilot experiment to test ‘E-cam’, which makes it a fascinating moment in British television drama, a stepping stone to possible futures in the use of colour and the convergence between television and cinema. This essay is the most detailed exploration of George’s Room to date. This might not be surprising, given that those studying Clarke could only access an incomplete version,3 until, as the BFI’s Sam Dunn explained, ‘the missing half […] was discovered hiding in the deep recesses of the National Archive’.4 This essay provides information on different stages – from commissioning to overseas sales – but its main focus is on the play as an experiment in colour and electronic film.

Stella (1968)

DAVID ROLINSON

Half Hour Story Writer: Alun Owen; Producer: Stella Richman; Director: Alan Clarke

BTVD_Stella_11The BFI’s superb new Alan Clarke box sets contain many treats – they at last make most of the director’s surviving BBC work available to everyone and do so with such loving remastering and restoration that even those of us who have seen these pieces many times have never seen or heard them like this – but I’m particularly pleased with the bonus DVD on the main blu ray set Dissent and Disruption: The Complete Alan Clarke at the BBC.1 This collects several of Clarke’s early plays for the ITV strand Half Hour Story (1967-68), including pieces that were thought lost from the archive.2 I say more about Half Hour Story in my new essays for the blu ray booklet, and more about this and Clarke’s other early ITV work in my book Alan Clarke (2005);3 however, this website essay revisits Stella (1968), one of my favourite Half Hour Story plays, to study it in more detail.4 Clarke is rightly being celebrated by film critics for his filmed drama, but we should not forget that he was also a master of the electronic multi-camera studio. This results in such impressive studio experiments as Danton’s Death (1978), Psy-Warriors (1981) and Baal (1982), but there are signs of his qualities in Stella and the other plays that he made at Wembley Studios in his early days at Rediffusion.

Docudrama – Notes #1: TV sets & TV Centre

DAVID ROLINSON

BTVD_Docudrama1_Castles
Near the end of Castles in the Sky (2014), the docudrama about the invention of Radar broadcast on BBC Two earlier this month, Robert Watson-Watt (Eddie Izzard) shows his colleagues a television set.1 This produces another of the little scientific breakthroughs that form the core of this quietly endearing piece. The set is at once modern and archaic: in the programme’s 1930s setting this gleaming new object is a technological marvel, proposing a solution to a challenge on which the defence of the nation rests, but in the visual rhetoric of the 2014 drama it appears almost comic. This reminded me of some of the tensions that sometimes result when television technology appears in docudramas, either in terms of sets or studios. This article runs through a few such moments in pieces including The Fools on the Hill (1986), The Road to Coronation Street (2010) and An Adventure in Space and Time (2013).