Film & TV Muse

Call the Midwife: Why it isn't Just for the Mums

Lucy Cooper discusses the social impact and intersectionality of the much-loved historical drama as it begins its new season

Article Thumbnail

Image Credit: BBC

When I was in year nine I had a big secret. It was my ultimate guilty pleasure. The fact was, I was a Call the Midwife fan. There was something cosy about escaping into the world of 1960s nuns and midwives, whistling along to Nina Simone and admiring the array of cardigans. When I whispered my secret to any of my friends, I would normally be met with “oh, my mum watches that I think”.

Nowadays, I embrace my Call the Midwife passion, and anyone who follows my Twitter will probably be aware of it too. Not only do I no longer believe in guilty pleasures (why should you feel guilt for something you enjoy?) but I’ve begun to realise that Call the Midwife doesn’t deserve the middle-aged audience stereotype it gets. In fact, it’s importance should not be underrated.

I remember first watching Call the Midwife as a much younger child, being completely freaked out by the birth scenes. It was through this show, and not any PSHE lessons, that I learnt the woman still has to push out the placenta after the baby is born… This was scarring news for an eleven year old.

However, one evening I was sitting in the lounge as my Mum was watching the latest episode, and I watched as a gay storyline unfolded between one of the midwives and a nurse. I instantly went up to my room and started from series one. As a gay teenager, finding representation in our TV shows is no easy feat. The fact that a show based in a 1960s nunnery was doing just that, was enough for me to dedicate my next few days to watching every episode. LGBTQ+ representation in media is sparse, and for it to appear in a primetime BBC slot felt really important, especially in a show that focuses on childbirth and nuns. It was done thoughtfully and without much fanfare, something which cannot be underestimated in a world where gay storylines solely focus on the trauma and difficulties faced. Sometimes we just want to watch some nice gay midwives living amongst the nuns.

That is what makes Call the Midwife so special, and why it will always be such an important piece of drama. The stories cover so many different facets of society, leaving very few rocks unturned. Each episode follows a different mother with their own story, affording the show the chance to explore many social experiences. Based in Poplar, the nuns and midwives encounter patients from all corners of the globe, whether that be Irish travellers or immigrants from Bangladesh. For a show based in a time period of such development, it does a good job at recognising the whirlwind demographic change that London experienced. In a later season, a new midwife from Jamaica joins the ranks of Nonnatus House – another chance for the show to delve into the racial encounters and difficulties faced by Commonwealth migrants joining the NHS. It is a show about childbirth, but at the heart of it, babies are secondary to the plot.

The show has a way of keeping its cosy feel whilst pushing these difficult storylines throughout. Particularly in later series, I cried during every episode. Full on bawling. Like tears staining my cheeks. Not many shows have this impact, and it is because of the deeply personal way they approach each story. One plot-line which really stands out was the handling of the thalidomide crisis. Not only did Call the Midwife follow a mother whose baby was born with defects caused by the drug, but also watched the doctor grapple with his role in the tragedy when prescribing this treatment. Seeing the topic through so many different lenses gives such a multi-dimensional view, and makes the emotions hit even harder. Not great when I’m already choking on my tears.

This wasn’t the only historically significant event dramatised in the show. The Cuban missile crisis, the development of the pill, and even access to condoms have all been tackled on the Sunday evening show. The first few series were based on real life accounts from Jennifer Worth’s memoirs as a midwife from the time, but even as the writers moved onto fictional storylines, the accuracy remained largely unparalleled.

When considering the cultural importance of Call the Midwife, it would be wrong to forget the watershed impact it has had on women in media. It is rare for such a woman-led show to have this high a profile on a channel like the BBC. Fifteen years ago, if you were to suggest that a TV show based around midwifery and women’s experience would become a flagship BBC drama, you would be met with derision. Instead, the show gives power to women of all creeds, with the focus always being on the woman and her agency. Even when exploring their relationships, this is always secondary to her thoughts and her work – something that is often missed in other popular media. The impact of this cannot be underestimated – CTM was a trailblazer for women’s drama.

The cosiness of Call the Midwife is often why it is seen as a middle-aged woman’s TV show. But this is the very thing which makes it so timeless. It is a show that feels like a warm hug on a Sunday evening. It’s one you can watch with the whole family. Yet it intertwines difficult and emotional topics in amongst witty humour and cute love stories. It is gritty, and graphic, and will always manage to make me cry.

Editor's Note: The Latest Series of Call the Midwife airs this Sunday on BBC One

Latest in Film & TV