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.
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:
We were all deeply worried when we heard about the time slot. Pippa [Harris, fellow executive producer] and I wrote a number of emails expressing our concerns, but the plan did not change. I’m convinced that people will have turned off in their droves. We have shots of babies’ heads emerging, syphilis, a haemorrhage and a rather cheerful enema. It is hardly pre-watershed fare – and we’ve already been told that men won’t watch it, young women won’t watch it, and pregnant women won’t watch it. Who on earth will watch it?2
Such concern is understandable. When Call the Midwife returned for a sixth series this month, the first episode’s depiction of domestic violence and swearing attracted criticism in tabloid newspapers recycling from the Twitter feeds of shocked viewers.3 Though Call the Midwife has included a lot of harrowing material in the past, these viewers had a particular concern with the watershed – the idea that programmes will be suitable for family audiences up to 9.00pm – and reported rushing their children to bed earlier than planned.
Concerns about the watershed as experienced during live viewing, and the series’ Sunday-night-ness, sit awkwardly in broadsheet newspapers that annually and misleadingly claim that broadcast television is dying – because of time-shifting, streaming or the same Netflix that bundles BBC dramas as ‘Netflix originals’ – but then newspapers are themselves quaintly over-sensitive to such broadcast staples as timeslots and genres. Anyone doubting that timeslots still matter, despite the colossal success of The Great British Bake-Off with its precision-tooled dead-centre-of-the-weekness, should look at Sunday nights. There is a stereotype of Sunday night as the home of undemanding, heartwarming drama, often with a nostalgic sense of period, from All Creatures Great and Small to the heavily focus-grouped Heartbeat,4 or series that are all-but period dramas because of their creation of a traditional sense of regional place, such as Monarch of the Glen.5 Expectations can be summed up by a Guardian response to Cranford6 in 2007 – a period drama adapted by Heidi Thomas – as being ‘aimed at a softer Sunday night audience’ that might cause BBC management problems by being ‘a big, expensive and lush drama’ that is potentially ‘too icky and gooey’ and therefore not work as ‘a sign of what the BBC “is about”’.7 There are so many exceptions that these views are quickly exposed as empty generalisations – The Singing Detective, widely celebrated as a landmark in experimental drama, was broadcast on Sundays – but the idea is so pervasive that plenty of programmes have got into trouble for deviating from these expectations. In 1954, viewers of Nineteen Eighty-Four complained that this ‘was a disgusting play to put on, especially on a Sunday’,8 and some even sent the producer death threats. In 1994, the BBC struggled to know what to do with Seaforth, which was criticised for gloominess having brought to its 1940s setting such harrowing developments as self-administered abortion – and that at 9.00pm.9 These concerns have outlived the long-standing but now lost association of early Sunday night viewing with religious programming in a ‘God slot’ protected by the consensus of public service broadcasting. Genre plays a part: as Estella Tincknell observed, ‘Period drama is too often treated either as an empty source of middlebrow pleasure or as an uncomplicated exercise in nostalgia.’10 Call the Midwife is one of the dramas with which Tincknell challenges this.
As this suggests, there are a few academics actively engaging with the series. In 2013, Tincknell described it as ‘a compelling defence of socialised medicine’ which ‘calls attention to the present in which the NHS is under attack’ and makes an ‘intervention [which] represents a reassertion of not simply the importance of the NHS but of what might more broadly be called women’s values’.11 These concerns include an emphasis on family planning as part of the series’ interest in social history and who has the right to write it: one episode ends with the statement that the invention of the Pill was a greater scientific contribution than man landing on the Moon. In 2016, Hannah Hamad placed Call the Midwife alongside many other programmes and in the context of ‘crisis rhetoric surrounding healthcare leading up to the passing of the Health and Social Care Act 2012’.12 Hamad disagreed with ‘Feminist claims’ for the ‘authenticity’ of the series, ‘given the status of its source material as a memoir of affective labour’. Hamad saw it as a ‘remediation of past fantasies and cultural constructions of nursing’ in terms of ‘white, middle-class femininity’.13 This is certainly a feature at the heart of the series, but for me Call the Midwife constantly draws attention to the privileged perspective of its middle- and upper-class midwives and the problematic nature of their interaction with working-class mothers in Poplar: it sometimes interrogates this in challenging ways (series two episode five approaches it through a brutal piece of editing that I will return to in detail in a later article).
So far in this piece I’ve praised, or quoted others who have praised, the series for its toughness, its harrowing imagery or its committed approach to social history, but I’ve often wondered aloud (in forums other than this one) whether this sort of praise might do more harm than good. Call the Midwife is sometimes the nearest BBC drama gets to the virtues of Play for Today, but if I prioritise this then I’m in danger of not doing justice to its specific qualities. (We could even add the paratexts that accompanied the first few years of the series: were there genred or even gendered claims made by the nature of the BBC’s ‘Original British Drama’ ident, with its crashing monochrome urgency, which replaced an ident with rolling green fields?) The language of toughness and social realism played a part in the privileging of masculinist discourses that led scholars such as Christine Geraghty and Charlotte Brunsdon to battle to get the academy (and television itself!) to take soap opera and its audiences seriously. Television Studies owes its existence and much of its continued importance to feminism. Drawing from those earlier studies, Vicky Ball observed in 2013 that ‘areas of culture tied to “the feminine” have not only been marked out as gendered in comparison with the masculine norm, but have also been classified, enjoying low cultural status because of their association with women and femininity.’14 To write about Call the Midwife we also need to celebrate its warmth, the interactions between characters, the series’ affective properties (academic-speak for its unfailing ability to make me cry). When a critic celebrates its ‘social realism’ as a marker of quality partly hidden by its ‘heritage footwear/cableknit bloodshed garb’ and ‘teatime whimsy’, we might wonder why we can’t take the latter things seriously too.15 Few programmes use costume as effectively as markers of theme and characterisation, from the cut of Jenny’s coat which inspires trust from a damaged girl in series one, to Trixie’s continued attempt to embody her thoughts in her arms and gestures from films and magazines.
Leading the drive to celebrate such series on their own terms, Vicky Ball has placed Call the Midwife in the context of the ‘female ensemble drama’. This ‘neglected form of British, feminine-gendered fiction’ has a long tradition on television, ranging from prison dramas and historical dramas to sitcoms: her examples include Shoulder to Shoulder (1974), Tenko (1981-85) [another far-from-twee Sunday night drama], Widows (1983-85), Band of Gold (1995-98), Dinnerladies (1998-2000) and Bad Girls (1999-2006). Ball is working on the definitive history of this type of drama – it is not a genre and is not uniform, as is obvious when you see it includes Within These Walls (1974-78) and Rock Follies (1976-77) – which should be an important intervention in how histories and studies of television are written. To these examples we might add Ladies in Charge (1986) and note that ITV have been less protective of their own recent attempts than the BBC have of Call the Midwife: see the unjust fates of The Bletchley Circle (2012-14) and – a more direct comparison – Home Fires (2015-16).
Series five of Call the Midwife was particularly strong. Its depiction of the birth defects caused by Thalidomide balanced unflinchingly graphic content with sensitivity and emotional complexity. It was not only the parents who had to come to terms with events: so had the doctor who prescribed the drug to pregnant mothers, as-yet-unaware of its side effects, with his characteristic passion and faith in medicine as a progressive force. As part of a narrative that has covered two series and will continue, Doctor Turner took up the challenge of South Africa in the 2016 Christmas special partly in order to regain the feeling that medicine can make a positive difference. The series’ approach to medicine has been contested – as Hamad as outlined – but there are underlying tensions within the series too. For all its period detail evoking the late 1950s and early 1960s, Call the Midwife is often highly topical and the ongoing Thalidomide storyline was very timely since 2016 became a year in which historical scandals and cover-ups were uncovered or challenged. The 2017 series has picked up some of these challenges. Last week’s episode was a less spectacular example of this, as Sister Ursula seeks to turn Nonnatus House into a ‘hub’ with nurses and midwives asked to rationalise their services, and Shelagh campaigns for improved workplace rights after a new father is seriously injured at the docks.16 This week’s episode feels even more topical – what a time to tell us that ‘We are all travelling through one another’s countries’ – and a baby’s health is put at risk as a result of time constraints motivated by bringing hospital practice to district practice, and the maternity home is placed under threat, with the acknowledgement that ten years later this facility will simply not exist.17 Therefore, Call the Midwife charts changes but has a topical eye on the implications of definitions of progress. All series have their peaks and troughs, and there have been (few) spells in which the turnover of actors has led to the grinding admin of reorganisation. However, series five was the strongest run of any drama I saw in 2016.
So where is Call the Midwife in the end-of-year round-ups of the year’s best television? I’m wary of reading too much into this since Omission Rage is a key feature of the clickbait list, but in most cases it is absent from the Top 10s, and even Top 50s, of major British sources.18 It is difficult to argue that Call the Midwife is ‘neglected’ – it is often the most-watched drama of the year, it won at last week’s National Television Awards (voted for by the public), has had success at the BAFTAs (though not for a while), and a few critics and academics speak so highly of it. However, it does not get the credit it deserves. Emotionally overpowering, skilfully made – I would call it ‘quality television’ had that phrase not been so misused by academics – it is one of the great popular drama series, continuing British television’s defining qualities of making the good popular and the popular good.
It may be taken for granted because it is a returning series: returning series can be neglected by award ceremonies, critics and television’s own promotional cultures in favour of new shows. Or is there more to it? There is an uncomfortable sense that its huge ratings are part of the problem for broadsheet critics with their privileging of new platforms or, at worst, wilful ahistoricism (which would not be tolerated from critics of literature, theatre or cinema). This can result in quaint value judgements about popular drama series: as if a drama that gets over 10 million viewers simply cannot be as good as a drama that is viewed on subscription cable services by very small audiences that can afford such services and, therefore, have ‘taste’. Some reviewers make me suspect that if Call the Midwife was made by HBO or showrun by a man, British critics would never shut up about it.19 This takes us back to how those of us who write about television experience it. I gave up on The Night Manager and The People vs OJ Simpson in part because they were fundamentally exposed by being sandwiched between Call the Midwife (Sundays) and series two of Happy Valley (Tuesdays) – perhaps I would be more convinced by the awards they won if I experienced them on their own. But then, serials and work in certain genres have always been prioritised over series and, in particular, ‘women’s drama’. This website has been just as guilty, albeit inadvertently: I’ve adored Call the Midwife as a viewer but haven’t delivered the piece for this site that I had hoped to; instead I’ve posted about other things. It’s time to change that.
Originally posted: 31 January 2017.
31 January 2017: added one sentence each to penultimate and final paragraph (new start to final paragraph); one minor typographical correction.
5 February 2017: amended title from ‘Notes on Call the Midwife #1: Sunday night’; added coverage of tonight’s episode.
- Emily Nussbaum, ‘Crowning glory: The sneaky radicalism of Call the Midwife‘, The New Yorker, 20 June 2016, available at http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/06/20/call-the-midwife-a-primal-procedural. The series has been called ‘twee’ in many reviews, though one that sticks in the mind is an Independent review on 17 January 2016 which was responding to an episode which featured an unflinchingly graphic, angry response to the Thalidomide scandal. The television coverage in The Guardian is unsurprisingly a regular offender but this line was contested as early as 2012 by Sarah Dempster, who wrote that, despite it being ‘couched in the heritage footwear/cableknit bloodshed garb of Sunday evening tradition’, it had ‘a tenderness and sincerity’ and was ‘dedicated to social realism’. The review still described the Christmas special as serving a function as ‘a comforting pool of lamplit nostalgia’, but then the Christmas specials do often operate differently. Sarah Dempster, ‘Call the Midwife Christmas special: A refreshingly sincere treat’, The Guardian, TV OD, 21 December 2012. Even this praise dismisses the form. [↩]
- Heidi Thomas, Diaries Part 3: 16 January 2012, The Life and Times of Call the Midwife: The Official Companion to Series One and Two (Collins, 2012), p. 273. [↩]
- I’ve linked to one in the Daily Mirror but there is more detailed coverage elsewhere. [↩]
- See Lez Cooke, British Television Drama: A History (London: British Film Institute, 2003). [↩]
- For example, BBC Four’s The Cult of… series followed its programmes on ‘cult’ and science fiction with a series on ‘Sunday’ (2008), as if that was almost a genre in its own right. Period programmes feature – All Creatures Great and Small, the 1970s Poldark, The Onedin Line – but so do contemporary dramas such as the glossy soap-style The Brothers and Howards’ Way and popular detective series Shoestring and Bergerac and the deceptively playful version of Scottishness in Hamish Macbeth. Some series combine some of these features, such as Agatha Christie’s Poirot and Miss Marple. [↩]
- Cranford, wr. Heidi Thomas, based on novels by Elizabeth Gaskell, dr. Simon Curtis. BBC/Chestermead/WGBH, tx. BBC1, 2007-2010. [↩]
- ‘BBC costume drama Cranford: splendid but sudsy’, The Guardian, 14 November 2007. [↩]
- Quoted on this website in Oliver Wake, ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four (1954) – Myth Versus Reality’, British Television Drama. [↩]
- Seaforth, wr. Peter Ransley, pr. Eileen Quin, Alan J. Wands, dr. Peter Smith, Stuart Burge, Martyn Friend. Initial Film & TV for BBC, 9 parts, tx. BBC1, 9 October 1994-4 December 1994. [↩]
- Estella Tincknell, ‘Dowagers, Debs, Nuns and Babies: The Politics of Nostalgia and the Older Woman in the British Sunday Night Television Serial’, Journal of British Cinema and Television, Volume 10, Number 4, 2013, p. 772. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 780. [↩]
- Hannah Hamad, ‘Contemporary medial television and crisis in the NHS’, Critical Studies in Television, Volume 11, Number 2, pp. 136-150. Quotation here from the article’s abstract. [↩]
- Hamad, p. 145. [↩]
- Vicky Ball, ‘Forgotten sisters: The British female ensemble drama’, Screen, Volume 54, Number 2, pp. 244-245. [↩]
- See the piece cited in the first endnote, above. [↩]
- Call the Midwife, series six, episode two, tx. 29 January 2017. [↩]
- Call the Midwife, series six, episode three, tx. 5 February 2017. [↩]
- Call the Midwife didn’t make the Guardian’s ‘Top 50 best TV shows of 2016’. The Guardian had a readers’ poll which it introduced as a corrective to its own list but then only listed five of the programmes readers suggested. To be fair to newspapers – even the Guardian – they have featured some positive reviews over the years. The Telegraph’s ‘best TV shows of 2016’ did list Call the Midwife in its 60 programmes but only the Christmas special, in an awkward conflation with Christmas coverage, and connected to a mixed review. Call the Midwife didn’t make the Radio Times ‘Top 40 TV shows of 2016’, which listed The Night Manager as the best programme of the year when it wasn’t even the best programme of each Sunday night it was on. Here I am of course guilty of the sort of reductive singling-out that the polls are themselves guilty of. The BFI’s ‘best British TV of 2016’ also omitted the series but this list is different because it makes its qualifications explicit – ‘we have focused on new programmes’ – and does not claim to be exhaustive, instead presenting each programme as the single choice of a different named curator. [↩]
- This is something I said on social media over the years but it looks more provocative when I write it here. My posts for this site are usually more academic than this blog-type approach – which is why my long-planned Call the Midwife piece never happened! So, if I’m going to make this claim about gender and showrunners then I should provide more corroboration and explanation. The British media’s emphasis on American television appears in different ways: one small example is the coverage of Jessica Jones only having women on its director list, which was deemed newsworthy despite Call the Midwife having already done this quietly (though perhaps the genre makes it more surprising). However, there are plenty of pieces that problematise my statement. Critics have praised Happy Valley and rightly celebrate its writer Sally Wainwright, but the comparison breaks down because that is signposted as an ‘authored’ series, even serial – for which Wainwright is sole writer and sometimes director – whereas Call the Midwife returns every year, for more episodes, and Heidi Thomas is more clearly a ‘showrunner’ in the traditional sense. This seems to lead us back to a privileging of serials over series and certain types of genre over the ‘female ensemble drama’: for example, The Night Manager was directed by a woman but is not a ‘woman’s drama’. [↩]