You’ll have to take my word for this, as you of course cannot see me, but I am shaking my fist at Call the Midwife. Not in the way you would at a cyclist who nearly cuts off your knees as he breezes in front of you at a pedestrian crossing, but in a mock-exasperated, “Oh stop it – you’ve communicated an important social-history message without my even realising it and on a Sunday evening. How did that happen?”
Call the Midwife, which I have occasionally described as the most subversive show on television, really is the most subversive show on television. It’s about nuns and midwives. Cosy, yes? Yet every week it comes round with a plate of Battenburg and those fondant fancies that you like, pours you a cup of tea, puts your feet on a pouf, before slapping you hard across both cheeks with a stick.
Then it ties you to a chair where, bound, gagged and helpless, you are assaulted with heartache. Really, properly sad, thoughtful stories about funerals for still-born babies (a desperately needed ritual for their parents); the horrors of “cures” for illegal homosexuality; prostitution and sexually transmitted diseases; the inhumanity of single mums forced to hand over their babies for adoption; racism; and in this week’s episode, suspected child abuse. Always set against a backdrop of pitiless poverty that looks real and grubby. This is not a Disneyfied East End; it even feels as if it’s crawling with lice.
Call the Midwife is tough. Really tough. The toughest show on television. The Wire? Pah! Breaking Bad? Whatever! C-Middy, as I list it in my Programmes That I Have Watched note-books, is well hard. It would see off Clint Eastwood and Harvey Keitel. Possibly even Ross Kemp. It would make wusses of them all. But its toughness has nothing to do with violence, and everything to do with its heart.
Having your soul punctured every Sunday evening is painful; there’s nothing like it. Having your emotions punched until they submit is a ruthless experience. Yet hand on heart, in the early years, I wasn’t a huge fan of C-Middy. I adore babies, but I found it all a bit meh, as the young people say.
But now, in its fourth series, the babies are secondary. Mums still give birth, of course. It’s Call the Midwife, not Call the Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist. But the story-of-the-week, which still involves a pregnant mum in some way, isn’t always about birth plain and simple.
C-Middy is now a very effective Trojan horse. It’s all about big social issues and it’s good at pushing a message without it feeling like a lecture. You and I, even though we weren’t sentient beings in the late 1950s/early 60s, probably know about the entrapment of gay men in public loos and a lifetime’s shame. We’ve read about it.
Similarly, there can’t be many of us who haven’t watched an episode of Long Lost Family and don’t therefore know about young, bewildered mums having their babies taken away for adoption. No ifs, no buts, baby is gone.
But seeing these stories played out in the context of a hugely popular drama (and C-Middy is gigantic, with audiences of more than ten million a week, despite big cast changes that saw the departure of its first big stars, Jessica Raine and Miranda Hart) is as brave as it is affecting. And remember, we are talking about 8pm, pre-watershed.
As much as the watershed means anything any more, it’s still a time when kids are supposed to be able to watch without their tiny minds being corrupted.They need to see the casual horrors of our history, albeit in dramatised terms. Always a useful lesson for a new, young, cosseted generation.
Call the Midwife is on BBC1 today (Sunday 15th February) at 8:00pm