Last year, a particularly mean-spirited one-star review labelled Call the Midwife’s Christmas drama “sentimental guff”, complaining: “Everyone in the East End of Call the Midwife is nice and kind and tolerant; but where are the Kray twins, nailing gangland rivals to the pub floor? Mods and rockers kicking the living sh*te out of each other? The flick knives?”
The reviewer even objected to the idea of a disabled man having the audacity to marry: “Her long lost brother meanwhile – get this – has a club foot, but still manages to cop off with a woman from the typing pool.”
If you agree with any of the above, you probably won’t like the 2019 Christmas special either because there is not a Kray twin or gang member in sight. But come on! It’s Christmas! And not every TV show has to be focused on the grimmer side of life! Why not have a little bit of festive sentiment?
This year, the midwives are off to Scotland, because headstrong nun boss Mother Mildred (Miriam Margolyes) says so, and what she says goes. The Outer Hebrides have been left without a single midwife, but – wouldn’t you know it! – the islands are absolutely packed with pregnant women all in urgent need of attention. Nonnatus House to the rescue! Off they all go up the length of the British Isles with bags full of medical supplies and thermal underwear, ready to deliver all those Christmas babies. Naturally, this does not go entirely smoothly – and the reception from some locals is exceedingly frosty.
Meanwhile in Poplar, Sister Hilda (Fenella Woolgar) and Sister Frances (Ella Bruccoleri) are manning the fort – without much help from Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), who is sulking about being left behind (in a reversal of last year’s episode, where she pulled a sickie to avoid a trip to the Mother House). Also pining for the Scottish contingent are Violet Buckle (Annabelle Apsion) and Reggie Jackson (Daniel Laurie), who can’t wait for Fred Buckle (Cliff Parisi) to come home so they can all make paper chains together as a family.
Previous Christmas specials have taken us to sunny South Africa and the Sussex coast. Apparently this year’s show was – at one point – going to be set in Malaysia, but when it came down to it, writer and creator Heidi Thomas opted for the Outer Hebrides.
That has proved to be a great decision, because the landscape is utterly gorgeous. Those beaches! Those storm-battered rocks! The little blue boat on the water! Stone churches and thatched houses, ancient standing stones, a red-and-white striped lighthouse – this Christmas special is a visual treat and builds an atmosphere which is almost otherworldly. The midwives find themselves in a very different world from Poplar, even if the need for healthcare is just the same.
And while Christmas trees and traditional decorations are in short supply on the Isles of Lewis and Harris (thanks to austere local religious custom), the drama does manage to be extremely Christmassy because – as always in the world of Call the Midwife – human kindness wins out.
Plus, there’s just the right amount of peril and darkness for a family TV drama airing at 7:30 on Christmas Day; while the main series often explores quite difficult storylines (as it will soon do again when series nine begins in January), this festive special delivers the requisite tear-jerking moments without destroying the post-Christmas dinner mood.
Particular mention must go to Daniel Laurie (Reggie) and Georgie Glen (GP’s receptionist Miss Higgins), who give us an emotional storyline as their characters bond and bring everyone else together in time for Christmas. Also impressive is guest star Eilidh Fisher, who plays Effie Tolmie – a Scottish teenager in emotional pain, who has a scene with Nurse Crane (Linda Bassett) which will bring tears to your eyes.
And in case you’re in need of some comic relief, watch out for some brilliant lines and facial expressions from Sister Hilda (Fenella Woolgar). Merry Christmas.
The Call the Midwife 2019 holiday special airs on PBS in the US on Sunday December 6 at 9/8c