East End Struggles

By John Martin

How is it that a TV series set in the 1950s and 1960s featuring midwifing nuns in an obscure district of London achieved such enormous popularity? The first three seasons centered on Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine). They mediated East End life through her somewhat naive eyes, which made for absorbing viewing, full of human interest and subliminal social comment.

At the time when Jenny Lee left and the series of necessity had to move beyond Jennifer Worth’s original trilogy, the critics engaged a spirited debate: was this the time to end Call the Midwife? As the fifth series came to an end in the U.K. on March 6, the BBC decision to continue stands vindicated. Call the Midwife has become even more compelling. Its willingness to tackle hard questions has kept audiences riveted.

The fifth series, set in 1961, included several powerful storylines for the residents of Nonnatus House. Trixie wrestles with alcoholism and attends AA meetings. We hear an excerpt from an AA talk that helps her find the root of her addiction.

The show’s mothers are first introduced to the diaphragm after the 1958 Lambeth Conference gives unequivocal approval to contraception. Later comes the contraceptive pill, which poses ethical issues for the senior nun, Sister Julienne. In these early days doctors were not allowed to prescribe it for single women.

A still-unresolved story line is the blossoming of love between Patsy (Emerald Fennell) and Delia (Kate Lamb). So far they have kept their relationship under the radar at Nonnatus House.

To this day the East End of London is famous for elaborate funerals, often featuring a horse-drawn hearse followed by massive cortege. The sudden death of one character is an occasion for a monumental grief. She was part of the story of many local lives, and people throng to Nonnatus House to file past her open casket and pay their respects.

Subliminal throughout the series is the spector of thalidomide, one of the worst-ever medical scandals. Like many doctors, Patrick Turner (Stephen McGann) has prescribed Distaval (a British brand name for the German-made drug) for morning sickness and depression among expectant mothers. He finds himself mystified and perplexed at a rising rate of infants born with deformities. When the drug is withdrawn, the doctor and his wife, Shelagh (Laura Main), conduct a frantic search for users. Their search is complicated because some have shared the pills with other expectant mothers.

In an interview in The Daily Mirror, McGann said he thinks one reason for the show’s enduring popularity is its willingness to tackle tough topics and expose the poverty of docklands London in the 1950s. It has attracted more than 10 million viewers.

“It’s a story that has not really been told and we’re telling the human side of it,” McGann said. “Drama has a special power to tell stories like this and to shine a light on important issues.”

It has won plaudits among American audiences, and that should happen again when Call the Midwife returns to PBS on April 3.

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