“Venus and Saturn are now in alignment.” – Call The Midwife 1×01
I loved Downton Abbey and I loooved recapping it, so when it ended I felt more than a little distressed. Where was I going to get my British comfort binge-watching fix now? Thankfully, my friend Cathy recommended Call The Midwife (“Watch it! It’s set in East London, following the lives of midwives in the 50s and 60s.”) Armed with that succint description, I proceeded to watch my first episode. Which quickly turned into a binge-watching orgy. Hooray! I have found my new Brit favorite. And so good people, I shall proceed to recap.
We open on a montage of grimy little children playing on the streets, near the river (so not safe) and hanging on a rope from a pole (so incredibly not safe). We meet Nurse Jenny Lee as she starts her first day of work at Nonnatus House, a convent dedicated to serving the community as its midwives. Jenny Lee is played by Jessica Raine, who was in An Adventure in Space and Time, so it’s nice to see a familiar face right off the bat. These first few minutes are a culture shock for the seemingly pampered Nurse Lee, as she is introduced to life on the gritty streets of East London. She is also shocked to find out that her new workplace is not actually a hospital as she expected, but a convent. Shock all around! There’s also a voiceover narrator throughout the show, as the mature Jenny guides us through the stories each week (the series is based on her book, after all). Though she sounds familiar, I can’t for the life of me figure out who it is. The eccentric Sister Monica Joan welcomes Nurse Lee, and I have a feeling she’ll be my favorite character, just as the Dowager Countess was my favorite in Downton Abbey. And just as the Dowager provided most of the titles for my Downton recaps, so does Sister Monica Joan provide us with our first title. We are also introduced to one of the recurring themes in the show, which is personally important and illuminating – cake in a tin can! It seems so quintessentially English. I love cake and I love tin cans, so I’m already sold on this show. And we haven’t even met the rest of Nurse Lee’s colleagues yet!
They are: Sister Superior Julienne (technically Nurse Lee’s boss), Nurse Miller, Nurse Franklin, Sister Evangelina, and Sister Bernadette. Oooh, I like them all already!
This being a show about midwives, there’ll be tons of mamas birthin’ babies, and our first expectant mom is Mrs. Warren, who’s had 22 pregnancies and 24 kids! (Chloe: Holy guacamole!) It’s quite disturbing. What’s also quite disturbing is Nurse Lee’s mild disgust at the conditions these families are living in. (Chloe: Stuck-up hoe.) She has to get used to it pretty soon because she’ll be visiting these homes day in and day out. Not only do the midwives perform home visits for free, they also hold maternity clinics once a week. Wow. British government aid for mothers in the 50s is nothing short of commendable.
Sister Evangelina is called to the bedside of Muriel, who’s gone into labor, and Nurse Lee assists. There’s a brief moment of panic as the baby is delivered, because it is at this juncture that the bedroom chimney decides to conk out and disgorge all its unhealthy soot into the room. Oh my! The baby is buried in soot! Is it alive? Not to worry, it is unscathed, and all’s well that ends well.
Mrs. Warren’s delivery does not go quite as well. There are complications, and the baby is delivered stillborn. Mrs. Warren, who suffered a concussion which brought on the delivery, goes into shock and is in real danger of dying. But miracle of miracles, the baby that Nurse Lee put in a bowl for disposal starts crying. It’s alive! Nurse Lee hands it over to Mrs. Warren even as she (Mrs. Warren) keeps losing massive amounts of blood. The obstetrics flying squad (catchy name!) arrives just in time to patch things up and are about to carry the baby to the hospital for the care it urgently needs. But Mrs. Warren insists that the baby must stay with her and that she is his hospital. And it does miraculously survive, gaining weight after a few weeks through a milk mixture Mrs. Warren learned in Domestic Science (Domestic Science! How British is that?) and that she droppers into his mouth like a baby sheep.
In the course of the episode, Nurse Lee assists in the delivery of one baby, delivers another on her own, and attends a syphilis-infected mother at the clinic. And in all these instances, she overtly displays revulsion at the poor living conditions of these people. At the Warrens’ house, where she’s invited for a meal, she openly shows her disgust at how everyone eats from one pot using only bread as a dipping spoon. She even asks for a plate! (I know it’s horribly unsanitary, but surely doing it one time won’t kill you.) I don’t know if it’s just because it’s her first few days on the job or if she’s an entitled heiress, but she better snap out of it or this will get tiring very soon. The other nurses and nuns face the same situations but they don’t complain. Or at least they never let it show on their faces. It’s just inconsiderate and rude to look down on other people, because guess what, Nurse Lee. Somewhere, someone else is also looking down on the way you live.
Thankfully Nurse Franklin talks some sense into her over a cup of Horlicks (another mouthwatering recurring element in this show! I remember being crazy over Horlicks tablets as a kid. Are they still available anywhere, I wonder?) Nurse Franklin tells Nurse Lee that “The mothers are the brave ones. Baby after baby in abominable conditions, and they keep on going. They’re the heroines”. Take that, Nurse Lee. Who knew Nurse Franklin, who looks like a stereotypical dumb blonde flake on the surface, was the sensible one?
I love the scenes where the nurses and nuns have a meal together. Nothing can be more comforting than a scene involving food and talk. We also learn that babies are routinely left outside their house (like linen left to dry) in the pram, alone. Alone! Outside! I can’t wrap my head around it! When do you ever leave a child for more than one second? A madman could easily grab the baby and take off with it! (Chloe: It was a more trusting time, a dumber time.) The only time this is ever acceptable is in The Sims, and even then you can’t bring a crib outside the house! Really I am in shock that it’s raining exclamation points. There’s also a lot of practicalities like enemas, afterbirth and newspapers under the mattress that remind us how childbirth is messy and messed up and really how does anyone even do it. The soundtrack also looks to be a real winner, as we hear “Que Sera Sera” by Doris Day and “Stranger in Paradise” by The Four Aces. Oh, and we also meet handyman Fred and GP Dr. Turner to round out the cast. And who’s the narrator? It’s Vanessa Regrave! No wonder the voice sounded so regal.
This all looks so promising! I am invested in the nuns and nurses, and everyone seems so likeable. (Yes, even Nurse Lee. I realize it’s only the first episode and I already have strong feelings about her, but things may still change.) I am so in!