Call the Midwife must be the most fearless drama on television. Blood, gore, violence, and a great big emotional thump delivered every single week. All before the watershed. I emerge from C-Mid as bruised as if I’ve let my heart fall down a cliff. You can keep all your big, tough macho shows – The Wire, The Sopranos, whatever – Call the Midwife would beat them all in a fight, without so much as tearing a hole in its lovely maroon cardigan. Then it would get on its bicycle and sing tra-la-la.
Writer/creator Heidi Thomas is completely unafraid. She’s created a Trojan horse of passion and anger, which doesn’t flinch from the horrors that routinely befell perfectly ordinary women in the late 1950s-early 1960s.
In this series a young teacher, cast adrift after becoming pregnant by a married man (sacked from her job and thrown out of her flat) performs an abortion on herself. It was the kind of amateur butchery god knows how many young women were forced into.
Domestic abuse, prostitution, infant mortality, (illegal) homosexuality, racism and the effects of utter, grinding poverty all feature routinely. And in possibly its boldest ever move, Call the Midwife is currently in the midst of a hugely important story arc, the emergence of what would become an outrage, thalidomide.
Honestly, I can’t think of another drama that would seize such a topic in the first place, let alone tell the story in the most fierce, heart-rending way. Thomas keeps her focus very tightly on individuals – this was long before anyone grasped why children were being born without limbs, long before decent family doctors, personified by Dr Turner (Stephen McGann) knew that their dispensing of a new morning sickness wonder drug was at the heart of a massive unfolding tragedy.
Poor Dr Turner, I can hardly bear to think of his reaction when he realises that he was the unwitting conduit of something with such appalling consequences. That’s because Thomas keeps it about character, about people.
There could have been a temptation to include a Thalidomide Baby of the Week, but again, with Call the Midwife’s absolute instinct for what’s right, both emotionally and dramatically, the story emerges only occasionally, as presumably it did in real life. It doesn’t have “Important Issue” scrawled over it. This is a proper story, allowed to develop in its own time.
I love, too, that Call the Midwife is a series with women at its heart, with an absolute lack of fear when it comes to stories about (look away now if you must) women’s bits and fluids. Not just waters breaking, but all the muck and gore that goes with childbirth. More than eight million people watch every week, which suggests that we’re the most robust, open-minded nation of television watchers on earth.
Call the Midwife continues tonight at 8pm on BBC1