Monday, May 23, 2016

Call the Midwife

With the quietly private death and very public funeral of Sister Evangelina, another fantastic season of Call the Midwife - yet another wonderful British TV hit being shown in this country on PBS - has concluded. The first three seasons were based on the actual memoirs of a post-war British midwife (see photo). Subsequent seasons have taken the show further, with plots highlighting all the major characters and taking us all the way into the 1960s. Specifically this just concluded 5th season took us up to 1961 - and to the terrible crisis of deformed births infamously caused by the drug thalidomide.

Set in the poor Poplar district of London's East End, the series combines period-piece nostalgia with serious social commentary. The main characters are a community of Anglican nuns and a group of nurses who live and work with them delivering babies and providing basic nursing care for mothers and children in that poor neighborhood. The midwives, the local doctor and his family, the local vicar, the constable, and other fixtures in the neighborhood sympathetically recreate the strong communal commitments that combined to ameliorate the harsh economic and social conditions of poor East End slum dwellers - the dreary, difficult, deprived, and dangerous lives endured by so many of them. The severe stresses that impacted the lives of countless women and girls, mothers and children, as well as their husbands and boyfriends are acknowledged and approached sympathetically - including situations which the context of the time made it difficult to acknowledge and approach sympathetically (e.g., single motherhood, homosexuality).

Particularly powerful is the presentation of the nuns and how they interact with the community - as well as struggle with their own inner spiritual lives. The actual Anglican nuns' community on which the story is based is the Community of Saint John the Divine, an Anglican nursing order founded in 1849. Their Poplar convent is called Nonnatus House and is clearly an important institution in providing both stability and compassion in that depressed environment.

Back in the real 1960s, American TV produced Going My Way - a takeoff on the movie of the same name - a one-season TV series that took seriously the ministry of priests in an urban parish and portrayed them responding intelligently and sympathetically to various pastoral situations that arose among their diverse constituencies. Not since then has there been a serious TV series that both seriously and sympathetically depicts the ministry of religious institutions in this way. Call the Midwife was based initially on an actual memoir from an experience in which the ministry and life of religious sisters was a key component. That was fortunate, for it gave an opportunity to present something that otherwise would likely not have made it into contemporary TV. 

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