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It’s 1957 in poverty-stricken east London and the nurses on period drama Call the Midwife (2012-current) are on duty as they try to deliver and save newborn babies. The series is loosely based on retired nurse Jennifer Worth’s memoirs about her time working in a convent with nuns to educate women about birth control and helping them deliver their babies.
“I love that we focus on women’s stories that you really don’t see anywhere else on television,” says actress Jessica Raine.
Seasons 1 through 6 can now be streamed or downloaded from Showmax and the drama kicks off with naïve 16-year-old nursing graduate Jenny (Jessica Raine) travelling to the town of Poplar, east London to start her dream job. But it’s not what Jenny dreamed of, because it’s a male-dominated industry with little chance of “the glam life”.
“I didn’t realise how poor London was after World War II,” says actress Jessica, adding, “It was bad! People were rebuilding themselves from the war and women’s needs weren’t a priority. The lack of contraception was astounding and in some cases, women had a dozen children. In fact, in the first episode, there’s a character with 24 children! People gasped at that and thought it wasn’t true, but it came directly from the memoirs.”
Unlike the present day, where contraceptives are readily available everywhere from pharmacies to petrol station quick-shops, the nurses in Call the Midwife had to be creative with putting a lid on unexpected pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Throughout the seasons, the show candidly exposes issues that women faced in the late 50s, including prostitution, incest, xenophobia and homosexuality.
“I love that we focus on women’s stories that you really don’t see anywhere else on television,” explains Jessica, who left the show in Season 3 for a career in Hollywood. “The show features strong, well-defined female characters who support each other instead of competing with each other. Call the Midwife is unique in that it has elements of nostalgia but is also gritty, with storylines that challenge and respect the audience.” After Jessica and her character’s departure, the creators went back to the drawing board to change the storylines and introduce new faces to help keep strong, independent women at the forefront. Watch now »
The first wives club
Much like Jenny, the other nuns, nurses and midwives put their jobs first but they’re divided more or less according to their age. The youngsters – Trixie Franklin (Helen George) and Cynthia Miller (Bryony Hannah) – are more fun-loving and eager to get on with the job, while the no-nonsense nuns Evangelina (Pam Ferris), Bernadette (Laura Main) and Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) are more strict and sturdy. But don’t tell the ladies that, jokes Jessica. “We were like sisters during the intro prep work. Being introduced to the 1950s equipment was scary but we did it – and we had a lot of fun and a lot of giggles. But it’s a serious profession and we’re trying to do the real midwives, nuns and nurses justice!” Watch now »
Getting over the hump
Don’t think that the profession was easy or a “fun” job. Besides the freezing winters and general poorness of the people in Poplar, the midwives had to struggle with poor equipment – and even a total lack thereof at times – as well as being looked down on by “real” doctors. “This was not a job made easy,” explains Jessica. “Everything is so easy these days. The modern world and bringing a baby into it can be easy, but back then it was an entirely different story.”
That is something the writers have been determined to play out as accurately as possible onscreen. Show writer Heidi Thomas explains that “we sourced more material from social history and GP medicine. I didn’t want to make the show seem unrealistic, so we have brought in modern midwives and experts who can go, ‘No, that is the wrong way’, or ‘that is what happens, don’t be so surprised’.” Watch now »
And that realism and honesty is part of the show’s “charm” and what makes it so popular. Life isn’t always easy or pretty and there are stories to tell around every corner.
Sources: BBC.com, Independent.co.uk, PBS.org, Radiotimes.com
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