Call the Midwife is such a magnificently subversive drama. With well over nine million viewers every week, it sits in the Sunday-evening “vintage” slot so long associated with toasty, feet-warming dramas about vets in tank tops and friendly 1960s policemen. At first sight, Call the Midwife is similarly cosy. Sweet midwives in knitwear and lovely, selfless nuns doing nothing but good in grubby 1950s Poplar in east London. There are babies too (awwwww, cute). What could be more adorable?
But Call the Midwife should take its place as the torchbearer of feminism on television. It might masquerade as an apple-cheeked costume drama but it is so much more than that. Episodes in series two have dealt with domestic abuse, illegal abortion, rape, the Pill, and the grinding misery of women enslaved by dull marriages, poverty and big families simply because they have no other choice. In Call the Midwife, there are many prams in many hallways.
Which is why I believe the series should be shown to teenage girls in schools across the country. They could call it C-Middy, just to be cool. THIS, you spoilt young things, is what your grannies and possibly even your mums had to go through so you can sit there posting drunk pictures of yourself on Facebook and playing your music out loud on buses.
What’s so marvellous is that the women in Nonnatus House hold the power. Yes, POWER, a word on many lips after the publication of the Woman’s Hour 100 most powerful women in Britain list. Really, why do we need a list and why do we have to measure ourselves in such male terms? Still, now Woman’s Hour has introduced the P word, let’s run with it.
The midwives are powerful. These are women who’ve been educated and have chosen careers. They’re quietly tough and don’t wilt in front of wife-beaters or abusive dads. For the time being at least, they’ve foresworn men in the romantic sense (they still flirt and have fun) so they can devote time to their jobs. Jenny (Jessica Raine) decided, after being let down by that weed Jimmy, that she’d be better off on her own rather than settling for the kind of half-life he could offer. A good message, surely? And it’s not hatchet-faced; there’s a really touching love story in Call the Midwife. You know the one.
Of course there’s an inherent femaleness in Call the Midwife, simply because it deals with the business-end of birth. But writer Heidi Thomas has lived up to her promise that this second series would be darker than the first by setting out the injustices women in the 50s faced, thanks purely to their biology. They lost jobs on becoming pregnant (and even simply by getting married) and they had little control over their fertility.
Hence the recent harrowing abortion episode – extraordinary in a pre-watershed slot – when an exhausted mother of eight decided she simply couldn’t have another baby. Her alternative was a kitchen table and a woman with a grubby scalpel. The message, followed by a Vanessa Redgrave voice-over paean to the Pill was unequivocal – these were Bad Days that must never be allowed to return as long as women have control over their own fertility and thus their own lives. Yes, young women, that’s how it was. Watch and learn.