What can Call the Midwife teach us? Life lessons from TV’s most warm-hearted drama

As Call the Midwife celebrates its tenth birthday, Zesha Saleem examines the show's wisdom on vaccines, community spirit and women's health.

Fenella Woolgar plays Sister Hilda in Call the Midwife

By: Zesha Saleem

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Call the Midwife has always had its finger on the pulse, despite being a period drama – but as the show hits its 10-year anniversary, it seems more relevant than ever. And speaking as a young woman and a medical student, it is a drama which feels intertwined with my life. With each new episode that airs, Call the Midwife has opened up new perspectives on different health and social issues, and given me insights into the history of medicine which I will carry with me throughout my career.

Since the pandemic hit, it has become particularly difficult to ignore parallels between events in the series and life in 2020-21. Strikingly, a key running theme throughout Call the Midwife has been the development of vaccines and their power to transform public health – but also to change the course of individual people’s lives.

Call The Midwife - S10
BBC

We’re constantly shown heartbreaking stories from before important vaccines were developed, or before their use became widespread. Many examples come to mind — from young Timothy Turner being personally affected by polio (the vaccine wasn’t fully rolled out to all age groups at the time) to the harrowing story in series nine, where nurses battled to control diphtheria. In this day and age, we’re fortunate not to see such diseases in the UK because of the vaccines’ success – but these troubling storylines show us why we need them in the first place, and remind us of how things used to be not so very long ago.

Now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the key role of vaccines is back in the spotlight. And to protect society as a whole, all of us as are being asked to take the vaccine. At the end of the day, we’re all responsible for each other. This is what being members of a community is all about. If we all act purely in our own interests, then it’ll lead us nowhere good – the pandemic has shown us exactly that.

And when I watch Call the Midwife, I’m reminded of this truth. An episode which really highlights the ‘sense of community’ is in series seven, where we see Poplar rally around a newly widowed pregnant woman to help restore her corner shop after it was destroyed in a fire. They didn’t have to; but it was the right thing to do.

Call the Midwife - pigeons and histoplasmosis

In the same way, we’ve seen how communities rallied around the vulnerable during the pandemic. For instance, in Manchester – where I’m from – a local Facebook group was set up within the first few days of lockdown, where people organised help for those who were shielding or had their lives turned upside down because of COVID-19, despite them being strangers. Looking out for one another, helping those who need it and being there for each other isn’t a lesson just for me, but for everyone around us. And that is exactly the message of Call the Midwife.

The vast progress in the scientific field over the 10 years of the drama has been incredibly fascinating, too. We’re shown the developments in medicine over the years and the way it changed lives in the East End for the better. From introducing mass screening programmes for Tuberculosis to the introduction of cervical screening, these were all initiatives which saved lives and helped people to make informed choices.

More than 50 years on, the pandemic has emphasised the way such advances are saving lives. If it wasn’t for the constant research by healthcare professionals and scientists, we wouldn’t be getting our COVID-19 vaccines at this very moment.

In my position as a medical student, I constantly witness the way medical research changes lives for the better. I see myself the way new developments change the way we approach problems in healthcare. Ultimately, all of this is about putting the patient first— a theme we constantly see in Call The Midwife.

However, for me, the biggest lesson from a series dedicated to portraying the lived experiences of women in the 1950s and 1960s is that women’s health is so much more than just pregnancy and childbirth.

The drama explores a wide range of sensitive women’s issues and health problems that many considered taboo at the time – or that we might still consider taboo today. The show’s creator and lead writer Heidi Thomas is keen to shine a light on issues like FGM – which is discussed with respect and cultural nuance — as well as menopause, prolapse, periods, or post birth issues like fistula. Call the Midwife has even been mentioned on my medicine course multiple times.

Linda Bassett in Call the Midwife

These are issues faced by many women up and down the country, but there is still a lack or awareness or understanding out there. For too long women’s health has been taboo in mainstream culture and male indifference and distaste, or else female shame, has kept these things outside of production.

For me, Call The Midwife bridges that gap. Dramatic telling of such scenarios brings a human element to such sensitive issues, making it a lot easier for us to understand and discuss the problems at hand.

At the end of the day, you could categorise Call the Midwife as ‘just’ a family drama; a special part of the weekend routine for a few weeks each year, followed by a festive special every Christmas Day. However, looking back over the past 10 years of the programme has made me realise that it’s so much more than just a TV show. There are some incredibly vital lessons which have resonated with me – and which have clearly resonated with the show’s millions of fans around the world.

What lessons will we learn – and what wisdom will we gather – from the next 10 years?

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Call the Midwife returns on Sunday 18th April 2021 at 8pm on BBC One. Check out the rest of our Drama coverage, or take a look at what else is on this week with our TV guide.