This TV series, apparently a smash hit in the
UK, has now reached Sweden. It may be a little too soon to pour sarcasm over it: after all, only the first episode has been aired so far. But that episode is an irresistibly easy target, and it raises the question of how such a harmless confection can be so annoying.
First, there is the “womanly woman” aspect. All the women in Call the Midwife are either (of course) midwives or mothers battling bravely in the slums of
East End. You’d expect at least one of them to chafe a bit at her lot in life, but no. They are all overwhelmed by the wonder of child-bearing. Even the syphilis-ridden slag does not question for a moment that raising kids (badly) is what she’s for. In one scene, the pretty-as-paint heroine has a conversation with another young midwife who is even neater – her chocolate-boxey good looks made me hope that here we would have the Fish Out of Water, or even better the Posh Bird Who Despite Appearances Does A Good Job In An Unconventional Way (remember that fun upper-class nurse Georgina had her training with in the original Upstairs Downstairs?). No such luck, however: the chocolate box midwife is disappointingly mainstream. She earnestly relates that she has come to realise that it is the East End mothers, not she, who are “heroines”. The main character later feeds the heroine line to the syphilis-ridden slag, who feels no end better. Oh yes, as the song has it, she’s a woman – W-O-M-A-N.
Now, of course there’s nothing wrong with maternal or caring impulses – quite the opposite. We’d be in a fine mess if these qualities didn’t exist. I should also be able to take that they are considered “womanly”, even if I am neither caring nor maternal myself (even the thought of doing as much as emptying someone else’s chamber-pot makes me shudder). After all, I would use the adjective “manly” to describe decisive and daring behaviour, without meditating on how frequent these qualities actually are in the male sex. Similarly, if someone speaks of “womanly” concern, it does not follow that he/she sees every woman as either a ministering angel or as a freaky person who has missed her calling. But I admit that the concentration of ministering angels and uncomplainingly child-popping mothers in Call the Midwife put my back up somewhat. Yes, this is a poor area in Fifties England – I shouldn’t be surprised that there aren’t girls dreaming of a college education around every corner. But is there really a need to be so gushing about it? When the voice-over starts philosophising on love as the fountain of life – or words to that effect – the womb-centred view of womanhood which connects Strindberg (at one phase of his life, anyway) with “biologist” feminism is not far away.
Second, this is feel-good television at its most lazy. I like feel-good books/films/TV programmes, I really do, but just because I do I don’t want to be treated as if I were stupid. Call the Midwife is slap-bang in the middle of From Lark Rise to Candleford territory. That series did sometimes try to raise its ambitions a little, but often enough, especially towards the end, it slid back to cosy-quirky plot lines that you would have found embarrassing at the age of twelve. Call the Midwife is based on an autobiography by a real
East End midwife, so maybe it’s just bad luck that she encountered so many living clichés on her way. But clichés they are. It’s a pity to see character actresses of such calibre as Judy Parfitt, Pam Ferris and Jenny Agutter wasting their talent in parts like the Dotty Nun, the Battleaxe Nun and the Wise Mother Superior (the midwifery is based in a convent, though laywomen such as the heroine and her chocolate box chum are also employed). As you would expect, the Dotty Nun and the Battleaxe Nun are locked in a Comic Feud. As for the patients, however rose-tinted my glasses are, I couldn’t quite go “aaah” at the story of the beautiful Spanish woman who saved the life of her prematurely born twenty-fifth child – I’m not exaggerating here, twenty-fifth. She was brought over at the age of fourteen. Her husband still doesn’t speak Spanish, and she still doesn’t speak English (no wonder they concentrate on child-producing – what else would they do of an evening?). She lives in a slum and has, I’ll say it again, twenty-five children. But what does it matter, eh? Her hubby still looks her lovingly in the eyes, and after all, love is the fountain of all life.
Which brings me to the final annoying characteristic of Call the Midwife - the mixture of slumming and sugariness. If the series hadn’t been such a success, I’d say it was in great danger of falling between two chairs. Feel-good fans like myself are much more comfortable in, say, Downton Abbey than in the East End of the Fifties, whereas those who are seriously interested in the living conditions of the slums sixty years ago will be disgusted by the treacliness of the story-lines. One of my colleagues, who was hoping for something grittier, called the first episode “namby-pamby”. Somehow, slums don’t go well with a spoonful (or, in this case, bucketfuls) of sugar. If you want to draw more than a select crowd of misery tourists, you have to serve up a strong plot and characters one truly cares about as individuals rather than as Victims of Society. This, judging by the first episode, Call the Midwife fails to do. I will give it another try, but if it doesn’t improve I won’t stick with it and give it second chances out of pure laziness as I did with From Lark Rise to Candleford. There are better things you can do with your time.