Why Does The Nation Love Call The Midwife?

It may only be a tender four weeks of age but Call The Midwife has already landed a second series and is growing in popularity with every yelp and groan uttered.

Cradled by the loving embrace of the BBC’s prime Sunday night slot, the first episode of this Eastend period show became the Beeb’s most watched drama debut – ever – when it emerged back in January. There is no doubt that, averaging just over 10 million viewers per episode, the girls on the boneshaker bicycles have ridden straight into the hearts of the British public.

But what is it about this cockney melodrama that we love so much?

Writing about the series, which was based on the memoirs of real-life 1950s midwife Jennifer Worth, Clive James speaks of the nigh on religious quality of the connection made by the viewing public. “This is a religious text even for non-believersâ€?, he says. And perhaps there is something in his view.

Around a sixth of the entire population of the Great British public regularly exchange a Sunday evening sermon for a visit to 1950s London c/o Miranda Hart et al. As well as benefitting from the close proximity of nuns (played exceptionally by Henny Agutter, Pam Ferris and Judy Parfitt), faithless viewers report that the drama offers them membership to a sisterhood of a different nature; making them “feel proud to be a womanâ€?. The opportunity to share experiences and memories of an event which “lies at the very heart of the human experience”, and which “unleashes every emotion we possess”, is at the show’s core says writer Heidi Thomas.

Jessica Raine as nurse Jenny Lee

But when we settle down with the rest of the Call The Midwife congregation with a mug of tea/vodka in hand, the most overwhelming feeling washing over our tired Sunday heads is that of nostalgia. Not even, necessarily, of a time that we experienced.

Reports from genuine 1950s midwives suggest that the BBC has not doused stories in a sugary glow, and this has not gone unnoticed by critics or audience members.

The Liverpool Echo featured the praise of former midwife, Mary McDonald, who said that “watching what was happening on screen was just like going down memory laneâ€?. But whether you were alive in the fifties or not, and despite the squalor and the dirt, the feeling that these simple times were happier is inescapable. Conchita may have experienced hardship but at least she felt safe and familiar with the women walking into her bedroom, ready to grope around in her nether regions.

As daily headlines warn us of the impending doom about to strike the NHS and budgets get cut back so far that hospitals themselves are at risk of being knocked down and made out of used incontinence towels (just for the time being), it is easy to yearn for simpler and more solid times. The crumbling NHS aside, surely times were better when Doris Day was on the radio.

Of course, the portion of society most likely to feel connected with the plight of the women in the series, are other women. Since the series started, a plethora of Mumsnet discussion threads have been initiated by viewers hungry to discuss the detail of the episodes and Twitter’s #callthemidwife is dominated by female gravatars full of enthusiastic praise for the show.

A sisterhood of a different variety: The cast of Call The Midwife

Henry Wallop of the Telegraph describes the programme as “a resolutely female dramaâ€? and criticises it for reinforcing “the prejudice that birth is a matter entirely for the mothersâ€?. This may be true. But it is hard to deny that any other gender could empathise (or be so interested for that matter) when it comes to understanding the visceral, painful experience of childbirth. It may be aimed more directly at women, but as the show’s producer, Pippa Harris, argued – nobody ever worried about whether the BBC should ensure Top Gear appeals to women as well as men.

Series One will be coming to a climactic end on Sunday 19 February, and there is no indication yet as to how long expectant viewers will have to wait for the safe delivery of series two. It may be a relative new born in the world of BBC drama but this series is already well on the way to becoming a gold-plated national treasure.

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