Another summer, another lockdown. Last night, we watched a small, rowdy right-wing rally against our city’s latest, necessary quarantine order lollop along under our window, all of them hollering their ambient refusal to be inconveninced so that their neighbors don’t die.
There’s no neat slogan for how much hurts to be a person at times like this. Times when social trust is threadbare, and taking minimal care of yourself and the people around you feels like running up the down escalator, wearing yourself to exhaustion just to stand still.
This is not an essay about any of that.
This is not an essay about vaccine nationalism. It is not an essay about crypto-fascism. It is not an essay about the economic crisis, or the coming mental health epidemics, or the taste of the air outside my window in Los Angeles in February, where so many corpses remained unburied that environmental restrictions have been lifted so the crematoriums can work all night.
This is an essay about a television show.
Specifically, this is an essay about the best television show you ought to be watching right now. Specifically now. It is an essay about the essential romance of public health infrastructure and the gnomic wisdom of demented nuns.
This is an essay about Call the Midwife.
Let me explain a few things about Call the Midwife.
The show, which is now in its tenth season, is loosely based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who worked as a midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s, alongside an order of nuns dedicated to maternal healthcare. It has a rotating ensemble cast and is both relentlessly twee and immensely popular — your grandma probably watches it. It’s full of gentle humor and schmaltzy sentiment and dotty old ladies stealing biscuits.
It’s also one of the most progressive pieces of pop culture of the past despicable decade. And that’s what makes it so fascinating.
Call the Midwife wears its wokeness lightly. It’s not the sort of wokeness you get when there are klaxons blazing and certainties collapsing. This story shakes you awoke very gently, leaves a nice hot cup of tea by your bed just the way you like it, and tells you kindly that it expects you scrubbed, dressed and downstairs in five minutes ready to overthrow the government. Most importantly, it’s woke because of where it puts it attention.
This show is about all the messy things that go on in the dark.
It puts the lives of working class women front and centre. It weaves drama out of the business of birth and marriage and sex and death disease and poverty and ageing. Hard lives and hard choices, class and race and gender and social change and, through it all, the relentless crisis of pregnancy, labour and early parenthood.
It is also, crucially, a story about how ordinary all of these things are. There is no big, dramatic Inciting Incident, no moment where Everything Changes, no stirring Call to Adventure. Just a world where everything is quietly is on fire, with a rotating cast of people who have chosen to fight the fire, not for glory or great riches but because someone’s got to.
What makes Call The Midwife so different from every other show I have ever watched is that every other show I have watched- not to mention every book on screenwriting I have ever read- is very concerned with how to ramp up the tension. In Call the Midwife, every single episode is about how to dial down the tension, how to make things less stressful, because in every single episode at least one person screams their way through the worst pain they have ever known. And somehow, things are still going to turn out alright. Because they’ve got to.
Call the Midwife is a story about the romance of mutual aid. It is set around the first iteration of the National Health Service and the early days of the British welfare state, when enormous, unprecedented schemes to improve housing, community infrastructure and public health were put in place by the Labour government of 1948. The show is in no way subtle about its themes here. At least once an episode, someone loudly observes that this baby would have died if it weren’t for our new National Health Service, and everyone looks pointedly at the camera.
This is public service broadcasting in every sense. Imagine that essential Bakeoff philosophy applied to to poverty, systemic violence, disease and death. On Bakeoff, the worst thing that can possibly happen is that someone makes an underwhelming soufflé. In Call the Midwife, the stakes are rather higher. It’s set in the East End sixty years ago, so we are surrounded at all times by poverty and prejudice and disease and death and community flower shows and death and jolly milkmen and death and quaint headwear and death.
Seriously, so much death. People die all the time on Call the Midwife. They die of neglect and they die of old age and they die in hospital and in the street and in jail, they die of pre-eclampsia and polio, blood clots and heart attacks, syphilis, suicide, and, of course, in childbirth- but, as we are reminded almost every episode, they don’t die as often or as horribly as they used to, thanks to the new National Health Service. Who’s for a nice piece of cake?
Because there is also cake on this show. Lots of cake. One of the recurring sprinkles of comic relief is a dotty old nun with a sweet tooth who keeps pinching all the baked goods. She isn’t the protagonist, because there isn’t a protagonist, not really. In the first few seasons, there was Nurse Jenny, played by the wonderful Jessica Raine, who was technically our hero, and we were all supposed to be invested in her various romantic travails. But she was never really the point, and after Raine left the show, the subsequent seven series have had no traditional protagonist at all. And they’ve been the better for it. Because that’s the point.
Call the Midwife is a show about community. Heroism, here, looks very different from the trigger-happy individualism of the traditional Hero’s Journey — just as it does in life.
This is a story, more than anything, about the mundanity of heroism. Not only is there no traditional protagonist — there’s also no real villain. There’s no cackling bad guy you can shoot in the face, or even defeat in the marketplace of ideas. there are no winners, and no losers, just people doing their best to keep each other alive. There is no antagonist in Call The Midwife, because there doesn’t need to be. Instead, it’s a story about structural violence, where the characters wake up every day and battle the double-headed hydra of human folly, public prejudice, social injustice and entropy. There is no villain with a name — when, very occasionally, sharp suited beaureacrats appear to threaten the maternity home with closure, their appearance is as jarring as a birthday clown at a child’s funeral. They live in a different world, operating on different principles, a world removed from the mess and blood and brutality and sheer everyday atrocity of living in seven billion fragile human bodies.
There are entire plot lines about public housing policy and the psychosocial effects of slum clearances. There are plot lines about birth-related PTSD, about the proper use of contraceptives, about the founding principles of the modern welfare state. You might not think you need to want to watch ten seasons of gentle, good-hearted drama about civic infrastructure, public health and the intimate politics of social reproduction, with occasional side quests where a nun nicks some shortbread. I didn’t think I needed it, either, but as Vanessa Redgrave, who does the voiceovers for all nine seasons might tell us, in a voice designed to be preserved in syrup and sold next to the teatowels in National Trust shops — sometimes we are given exactly what we need in this life, if only we have the wisdom to see it. Or something like that.
That’s more or less the tone of this show, and I’m here for it. It tries to walk the wobbly line between sentiment and sincerity without tripping over. Sometimes it fails, but it’s never preachy. In fact, in a show that is substantially about religious devotees, God is rarely ever a major player.
That’s important. God does not actually fix anything on this show. None of the main characters would would have any time for the idea that He would. Faith is simply what sustains most of these women through daily lives. It provides an emotional infrastructure, but it is no substitute for actual infrastructure.
I’m wondering if I really have to spell out how uncannily this speaks to the real crises in the world today, to this rolling calamity of disease and petty tyranny that touches all of us and forbids us from touching. I am wondering how unsubtle I have to be about the mundanity of heroism right now, and how our models of courage and collective ethics must make room urgently for problems that can’t be fixed by shouting at them or shooting them in the head.
Of course, if I were writing for Call the Midwife, I would be unsubtle, because Call the Midwife has no time for subtlety while people are in constant, ordinary, everyday mortal peril. I would have Nurse Crane, with her apron perfectly fastened, up to her elbows in someone else’s uterine blood, turn to Doctor Turner and tell him that sometimes, the business of living is heroic enough, and most people just get on with it, and the best you can do is make it easy for people to do what needs to be done for those that can’t do for themselves. And then Doctor Turner would look tired and say well, thank goodness for the National Health Service.
When history tells the stories of these years we’re living through, this will be the sort of story it tells- of the daily courage of competence and of caring. I can’t think of another show that actually makes public health infrastructure heroic, and right now that sort of narrative framing is desperately important. Western narrative conventions still have very few frameworks for telling stories about structural violence and resistance, stories where obstacles are overcome by lots of people working together, and not by one or two uniquely special or brave people battling a Final Boss. One look at the news, which I promised I wasn’t going to mention but forgive me, shows what happens when you feed people one model of what heroism is supposed to mean, when roid-raged white supremacists straight from huffing the chemtrails of toxic entitlement don’t realise they’re the bad guys.
Meanwhile, the actual heroes aren’t carrying guns, they’re carrying on the gruelling work of caring for each other while our feckless and self-serving excuses for leaders do nothing to help.
And that’s what actual heroism is. That’s the type of strength our age requires. You cannot deal with a global pandemic by shouting at it or lying to it. All you can do is your best to keep your shit together and your neighbors alive. And that is why I have watched seven seasons of Call the Midwife in the past six months, and I’m not sorry.