Why Call the Midwife is better than Downton Abbey

Far from schmaltzy or sickly-sweet, Call the Midwife is proving itself to be clever and bold programme-making, says Ellie Walker-Arnott

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I have long been a Downton Abbey addict. I love the Crawleys, with their upper class woes and their formal hats. As summer draws to a close each year there is nothing more exciting than the knowledge Robert, Violet and Cora will soon be back on my TV screen. 

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But I feel it’s time to be honest. I have a wandering eye. Call it the five year itch, but try as I might to stay faithful to the Crawley clan, I’ve been flirting with a newer, younger period drama.

Call the Midwife is BBC1’s answer to the international phenomenon Downton has become. It’s just as British (and on its way to being almost as much of a hit in America) with bags of period charm – but instead of cloche hats, flapper dresses and formal banquets, it’s swing skirts, prim cardigans, Babysham and battenburg. 

Or at least that’s how it seems at first glance. They might both be period dramas, and both ratings winners, but really, I don’t even think the two should be grouped together. 

While Downton has slowly turned into a 1920s soap opera, referencing historical landmarks and the perpetual passing of time in the melodramatic way only it knows how, Call the Midwife is passing thought-provoking comment on the world as it was, and the world as it currently is. 

There’s a preconception that Call the Midwife, with its nuns, do-gooders and homespun setting, is sickeningly sweet, schmaltzy and forever rose-tinted but actually the 60s-set drama is proving itself to be clever and bold programme-making. 

Rather than taking its dedicated audience for granted like my old favourite Downton Abbey might be accused of doing, Call the Midwife isn’t resting on its laurels. As it returns for its third Christmas special, with a fourth series to follow in the new year, each episode continues to push boundaries, question the order of things and refuse to shy away from shocking subject matter.

It’s getting better and better with age. You’ll be surprised by what moves you in the festive instalment, while episode one will have even the steeliest amongst us reaching for their hankies. 

The upcoming episodes have an underlying theme of feminism (even Lena Dunham counts herself as a fan) as the drama follows our group of self-sufficient, working women who know there is more to life than bagging a boyfriend, and introduces us to a wealth of women subjected to hardships and suffering they needn’t be. As creator Heidi Thomas says, Call the Midwife is about watching the world change, one woman at a time.

Sorry, Downton but you’re just not doing enough to keep me entertained anymore. The spark’s gone. You don’t speak to me or make me feel things the way you used to. And Call the Midwife does. 

Call the Midwife returns on Christmas Day at 7:50pm on BBC1

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Downton Abbey is on at 9:00pm on ITV