If you’ve never watched Call the Midwife, chances are you might think it’s a show steeped in nostalgia about the good old days of the NHS, when nuns and nurses on bikes would deliver babies before sitting down for an iced bun and a cup of sweet tea.
Six series in, the Sunday night medical drama is still too often dismissed as jolly hockey sticks-style fare, about well-to-do lasses delivering East End ladies’ babies while there’s a to-do over a new troupe leader for the Brownies and a wholesome “hello you” romance rumbling away in the background.
Spend a full 60 minutes on the sofa of a Sunday night, though, and you’ll discover how frightfully silly it is to write the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House off as the leading ladies in a cosy Sunday night drama.
Sure, some of the set-ups and exchanges can feel almost a little too saccharine – but they act as a mere buffer for the heartbreaking and harrowing tales that lie at the heart of each episode.
The first episode of series six saw the midwives coming face to face with domestic violence
“It’s really interesting because the only people who think Call the Midwife is cosy are the people who’ve never watched it,” muses Emerald Fennell, who plays Nurse Patsy Mount.
“It’s not a cosy show. It’s a beautiful warm show about love and friendship but it’s pretty real and gritty for 8pm on a Sunday night.”
“I can’t watch some of the things that are on there,” adds co-star Charlotte Ritchie. “It’s hardcore, it’s bloody and it’s what women have to go through, it’s unbelievable.”
Since Call the Midwife returned in January it’s dealt with domestic violence, a serious mental breakdown, the harsh realities of institutionalisation and a mother with achondroplasia struggling to be recognised as anything other than a specimen by her doctors.
Add to that previous tales of Trixie’s struggle with alcoholism, the beginnings of the Thalidomide scandal, and an upcoming Female Genital Mutilation plot that doesn’t shy away from the gruesome reality of its ramifications on childbirth, and you’ve got a pretty serious Sunday night medical drama that’s anything but fluffy.
A young mother who's been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation faces a difficult labour in series six
In fact, you get a show that holds a mirror up to society as it was, and asks women to contemplate whether or not the battles our mothers and grandmothers fought in the 50s and 60s have actually been won.
“That’s why I’ve always argued against the idea that ‘oh it’s nostalgic’,” says Stephen McGann, who has played GP Doctor Turner since Midwife’s debut in 2012. “No, nostalgic means that people are wanting an easy world.”
“We’ve seen horrible things in our show as well,” he continues. “It’s not about that, it’s about that mirror that says you decide are we better now or are there things that still need to be done?”
“I always say Call the Midwife doesn’t tell people what to think, but it tells them to think,” explains writer Heidi Thomas. “Our message is look at the situation we were in then, look at the situation we’re in now. How does it compare? Is it better? Is it worse? And quite often, the balance is between the two.”
2017 has already been a big year for the series, as it picked up its first National Television Award for Best Period Drama, beating out fellow BBC juggernauts Peaky Blinders and Poldark, ITV’s Victoria and Netflix’s Stranger Things.
Charlotte Ritchie, Helen George and Emerald Fennell backstage with Radio Times at the National Television Awards
Executive producer Pippa Harris was widely praised for her emotionally charged acceptance speech on the night.
“For us, it’s a bit ironic to be winning Period Drama when many people watch the show because it sheds a light on issues and struggles they’re facing today,” said Harris.
“And we focus particularly on women’s issues and stories, and on the battles that our mother and grandmothers fought many years ago, and which I thought we had all won.”
Her words hit close to home and one person who can definitely relate to them was the newest addition to Nonnatus House, actress Jennifer Kirby.
“In this political climate it’s a very interesting and very wonderful thing that the drama that seems to be one of the absolute favourites is really focused on women and women’s issues,” says Kirby, who joined the cast as Valerie Dyer just this year.
“Although obviously it’s a period drama, it’s so accessible today and so many of the issues are very important today. It’s important that people know about them and important that they’re on the screen and being seen by people, so that people who are going through those things know that they’re not alone and they’ve never been alone.”
Nurse Valerie Dyer (Jennifer Kirby) prepares to join Nonnatus House
What would Kirby say to those who dismiss Midwife as fluffy Sunday night drama, then?
“If people think it’s fluff, I hope that they’d watch it and think 'God, this is so much more' and I think that is what people do."
“I think they come at it maybe thinking ‘oh this will be lovely Sunday night viewing' but realise it’s also important and it addresses a lot of important things that need to be addressed and I think that’s a wonderful thing. People should be proud of it.”
Heidi Thomas most certainly is proud of what her show has achieved thus far, and knows exactly what she’d like any viewer to take from a 60 minute trip to her 1960s Poplar.
“With every generation that’s gone on, women I think have felt beleaguered, their voices are not heard. And we are now sadly entering a modern chapter where women’s rights are not just being overlooked but being targeted,” she says.
“I want women to take courage. Women have survived worse. Women have faced worse. But women always come out on top because women have each other.”
Take it from one Call the Midwife naysayer turned-Sunday night convert, after 60 minutes in Thomas's Poplar you'd most certainly believe her.
Call the Midwife continues on BBC1 on Sunday nights at 8pm