It is not often that there is a television programme which is created and written predominantly by women, priding itself in stories that celebrate women. After a hugely successful Christmas special, the nuns and midwives of Poplar returned for a fifth serial outing in January, continuing its ratings streak as the gripping and emotionally charged series finale pulled in an average of 9.2 million viewers overnight, making it the most-watched BBC show of the year to date. After its fourth series — in which creator and writer Heidi Thomas tackled tough social issues such as child neglect, alcoholism, stillbirths and the persecution of gay men — the fifth series took on its most challenging and utmost sensitive narrative yet, dealing with one of the most difficult and darkest chapters in medical and social history; the thalidomide scandal.
The thalidomide scandal erupted in the early 1960s as babies were born worldwide with malformed limbs. It was later discovered that this was due to a drug prescribed to pregnant women, causing immense damage to the prenatal baby. Much to the shock of nurses Patsy Mount (Emerald Fennell) and Shelagh Turner (Laura Main), the first episode of this series sees the birth of a thalidomide affected baby. What stands out during this particular sequence are the performances by Emerald Fennell and Laura Main; the two not having to speak a single line to convey that something is dreadfully wrong.
Even though the thalidomide scandal is the main thread of the series, the series does equally plunge into the growing generation gap between the trio of young midwives — Patsy, Trixie Franklin (Helen George) and Barbara Gilbert (Charlotte Ritchie) — and the nuns of Nonnatus House; Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) and Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris). The maturer midwife Phyllis Crane (Linda Bassett), never afraid to step in and spar, acts as a fantastic third party between the trio and the nuns as she is blatantly aware of what the young women are up to in their private lives.
Phyllis guides naive Barbara through her first romantic entanglement, though it is hard to tell whether Phyllis is aware of the romantic relationship between Patsy and fellow nurse Delia Busby (Kate Lamb). Ever since Patsy’s arrival in series three, her sexuality has always been a spot of speculation for fans, what with Marlene Dietrich and Tamara de Lempicka postcards above her bedside table, an endless collection of gorgeous checked shirts, and an ambiguous quote in referral to refusing to date the local Vicar. This series sees the pair grow in confidence as they share secret moments together over late night cups of Horlicks and brave a visit to the Gateways Club; a noted lesbian club in Chelsea.
Stepping away from the realm of 1961, what is particularly notable is how much actresses Emerald Fennell and Kate Lamb and writer Heidi Thomas respect and cherish the representation of two queer women on screen. Even though Patsy and Delia are strictly not out to anybody as the revelation of their sexuality and relationship has the harm of ruining their careers and reputation, their relationship is perhaps one of the most refreshing and prominent queer relationships in British television.
The beating heart of Call the Midwife lies with Judy Parfitt as the delightful and mischievous Sister Monica Joan, a retired midwife and elderly nun who suffers from dementia and speaks in riddles and poetry. Often dismissed by Sister Evangelina and even Sister Julienne, an episode of Call the Midwife would not be if she didn’t attempt to steal cake from the pantry or plant an astrological meaning to midwifery. With her and many other characters alike, series five is simply Call the Midwife at its best; challenging and heart-wrenching yet with warmth, wit and coziness.
It is a programme that features so many different characters and storylines, making it difficult not to praise each individual element. Yet, what is most striking is how it charts social history through the power of drama. It shows how medicine, midwifery, housing, welfare, and the NHS have developed during post-war eras, providing food for thought as we become engulfed in current political debates.
- Written by Anna Richards