It’s refreshing to see Call the Midwife finally tackle desire

The contraceptive pill and desire, a usually overlooked but vital part of this drama’s plot, took centre stage in tonight's episode, says Ellie Walker-Arnott

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Call the Midwife is all about sex and yet, in all its five series, has actually had very little to do with it.

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At least one storyline in each episode is tangled up in the consequences of a tumble beneath the sheets. Consequences both joyful and not so. We’ve watched families started and completed but we’ve also seen unmarried mothers shipped off to homes or shunned by society, lives irrevocably altered and women put in desperate situations.

Yet Call the Midwife has always steered clear of the ins and outs of the show’s not-so-immaculate conceptions. Creator Heidi Thomas even told Radio Times magazine a couple of years ago, “We’ve never had sex in Midwife and we never shall.” But that all changed tonight.

Now don’t get too excited, we didn’t peep through anyone’s bedroom door or spy Shelagh Turner topless. There wasn’t any actual sex. But there was passion and desire, a usually overlooked but vital part of this drama’s plot. It was clear to see, literally leaving a greasy mark on the wallpaper in Nonnatus House.

Fledgling couple Barbara and Tom got more than a little hot under the collar while home alone, their tonsil tennis while pressed up against the wall resulting in a swath of Tom’s Brylcreem staining the paper. The accidental pregnancies Poplar is populated with can feel disconnected from our gang of midwives – like mistakes other, less upstanding women make. But seeing series regulars Barbara and Tom get carried away, to understand first hand “why it happens”, was refreshing – and relatable.

Because if a priest and a midwife find it hard to dance without ending up snogging, what hope is there for the rest of Poplar? Or for us?

And that’s where another of tonight’s interesting plotlines comes in, because, of course, getting carried away is not something we have to worry about these days. The much-anticipated contraceptive pill arrived in Poplar, like a bold American cousin that makes everyone feel a little uncomfortable. It sparked conversations about the moral implications of “recreational intercourse” – and yet again cleverly reminded us of the freedoms, both social and medical, we enjoy unthinkingly today.

One of the show’s stars Judy Parfitt recently said, “There are no hunks and no cleavage and no sex on our show,” criticising the over-sexualisation of fellow period dramas Downton and Poldark. And it’s true that our telly screens are constantly subjected to bared flesh, whether it’s the actual act on Love Island, a steamy scene in a political thriller like Homeland or full frontal on Game of Thrones.

But what Call the Midwife did tonight is different. This one episode managed to show how passion and desire affects everyone from wide-eyed twenty-somethings to priests and gay women. It even allowed some time for a middle-aged nurse to conspiratorially recall a once reckless fling – an impressive feat, and not something many other shows could do.

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Call the Midwife series five concludes on Sunday at 8:00pm on BBC1