The Midwives, BBC2 – review

The first in a new documentary series starkly showed the effects of under-funding maternity units, says Jack Seale

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It’s a mystery why it took TV so long to realise that maternity wards are full of elemental, tear-wrenching drama. Extremes of joy, fear and compassion are on tap, if you can convince people to be filmed at their most primal and vulnerable.

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But with C4’s One Born Every Minute having proved compulsive, and BBC1’s Call the Midwife gaining millions more viewers than expected with its feelgood period fiction, this new six-part documentary is BBC2’s response to One Born, with the focus shifted from patients to staff.

Episode one was, unobtrusively, a powerful appeal for greater resources to be given to NHS midwives. The women of the frantic maternity unit at St Mary’s in Manchester were seen stoutly performing heroics every day, despite naggingly difficult circumstances.

Little failings and shortages lurked everywhere, ready to blight a blissful delivery, or make a routine birth traumatic. Scarce beds and staff forced Gill, the steadfast queen of the triage chart whose bleached crop and red specs gave her the look of a tough-but-soft supporting character on Corrie, to be unbending. “Not in labour!” was her catchphrase.

A woman expecting her fifth child, panting and raking her nails along the desk, insisted she knew what labour pains were by now. “Get a glass of water, take two paracetamol,” said Gill.

Another difficult patient liaison – a couple frustrated at their midwife declining to break the waters and precipitate the birth, since there wasn’t a bed free – ended up with Gill stepping in to deliver the child herself. The head emerged, the umbilical cord wrapped round the neck; Gill freed it with a flick of the wrist, as easy as brushing crumbs off her skirt.

The baby was floppy, unresponsive – Gill stayed brusque and confident as the parents wept and the child refused to cry.

Two virtually unwatchable minutes later, with the child finally out of mortal danger, we suddenly saw that the job was battering Gill as much as anyone. “If somebody told me, you’re going to go in that room and this is going to happen, I wouldn’t want to go in the room.”

Likewise, Ann rose serenely above the embarrassment of forcing a patient to explain that she’d lost her previous child, a faux pas caused by Ann not having had a moment to get up to speed. “It is so busy out there,” Ann apologised, tenderly checking the woman’s bump, putting her back at ease. 

“She explained everything,” said the woman Ann had been caring for, when Ann’s shift had ended. “She’s calm. She enjoys the one-to-one. She has an eye for detail with people.”

Maintaining such high emotional intelligence amid the cruellest life and death scenarios must be worth more than £30-40k a year, which is what everyone in this programme would be earning. Especially in a place as overrun as St Mary’s: the programme-makers chose a particularly busy ward, although with birth rates spiralling upwards, the Royal College of Midwives reckons England as a nation is 5,000 midwives short.

What The Midwives underlined was the repercussions of small shortfalls. We glimpsed a self-perpetuating cycle of medicalised, hurried births. And if Anne’s pastoral touches seem nebulous and dispensable, they’re not: a chat with a patient physician can’t help you physically if you’ve got cancer, but in labour it can. Tense up with fear and that melon-through-a-mitten process only gets harder.

Here, though, was where the programme’s effort to show what midwives have to deal with was too much. Like One Born, the bias was towards dramatically problematic deliveries. The first baby popped out impeccably (it was the woman clawing at the desk – Gill had correctly refined her diagnosis), but after that it was inductions, forceps, resuscitation and, in one case, “a huge haemorrhage”, none of it put in much context – and all of it filmed intimately by traditional camerawork, in contrast to One Born’s forgettable flies on the wall.

It meant the programme was a no-no for nervous expectant mums watching at home. They need someone to explain daunting medical terms, to stop them feeling alone, to build their confidence, to give them time. They need midwives.

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