“Call the Midwife”, a TV Show About Life and Childbirth

There are many television shows about medicine, both fictional- and reality-based. But there may be no show that is like, or is as good as, “Call the Midwife,” a show about women who are having babies and the people who deliver them. The show is extraordinary, in both its subject matter and its quality.

“Call the Midwife” is set in Poplar, an impoverished area of the East End London in the late 1950s and is centered on the lives of a group of nurse-midwives who care for the pregnant women there, along with their babies and families. A production of the BBC, it has now finished its eighth season, with a ninth season coming, and can be seen in the United States on PBS. All eight years of the show are available on Netflix.

The first few years of “Call the Midwife” were based closely on three memoirs by Jennifer Worth, a nurse-midwife just out of training who goes to work at what she thought would be a private hospital in London. Instead, she finds that she has been assigned to Nonnatus House, a convent that is home to the Sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus, an order of Anglican nursing nuns trained in midwifery. The order of nuns is fictional but is based on the Community of St. John the Divine, where Jennifer Worth really worked.

At that time in London, most births took place at home under the care of a midwife, and Jenny learns to bicycle around Poplar, visiting her patients and learning about the difficulties of the neighborhood, with conditions like extreme poverty, squalor, infestations, prostitution, and the after effects of the World War II bombing of London. Jenny starts working with the nuns and other nurses and the show follows their lives and the neighborhoods in which they work.

As the show progresses, viewers learn about the lives of the women of the order, led by the calm and loving Sister Julienne, the tough-as-nails Sister Evangelina, and the elderly and slightly daft Sister Monica Joan. The other nurses include Trixie, who eventually deals with her alcoholism, and Cynthia, who realizes that she has a calling to be a nun. The stories in the first years include a mother who is about to deliver her twenty-second child, a woman whose previous pregnancies all ended in stillbirth because her pelvis was misshapen from vitamin D deficiency, and a young prostitute whose baby is taken away from her.

The British National Health Service (also known as the “NHS”) is a new concept in the early years of the show. Women can be brought to the hospital if needed and know that the medical bills will be covered. The doctor who works with the midwives on the show, Dr. Turner, starts a maternity hospital for women who can’t deliver at home for some reason. As the show has progressed, it moved into the 1960s, with the advent of contraceptive pills and the Beatles.

Viewers see how social norms have changed since the 1950s and 1960s. In the first show, there is a scene where Jenny is listening for a fetal heartbeat on a woman who is lying on an examining table. The camera pans up from the woman’s abdomen slowly to reveal that she is casually smoking a cigarette as she is being examined.

“Call the Midwife” ranges from serious drama to lightheartedness, with characters like Chummy, the kind but clumsy midwife, and Fred, the warm-hearted custodian of the convent. Serious issues like abortion, domestic abuse, homosexuality, and racism are handled well. A story line in the fifth season shows how the medical community, especially Dr. Turner, comes to grips with the birth defects caused by thalidomide, a drug that he had prescribed because it was so effective for morning sickness.

Pregnancy and childbirth are shown in every episode, usually in vivid detail. There is pain and blood and some amazing special effects that make it look like an actual baby has been delivered. Real newborns are used in other scenes.

Deaths are also a part of “Call the Midwife.” Some babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth. Elderly patients pass on. Two of the most prominent characters in the series die over the course of the series and are grieved.

The acting on “Call the Midwife” is uniformly superb. Actresses Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne), Miranda Hart (Chummy) and Pam Ferris (Sister Evangelina) deliver solid performances, as does Jessica Raine as Jenny Lee in the first three years of the show.

If you haven’t watched “Call the Midwife,” I strongly recommend it.


Note: For excellent reviews published in The Pulse of movies about pregnancy, babies, and motherhood, read:

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Valerie DeBenedette
Valerie DeBenedette is an experienced health and medical writer who lives about an hour north of New York City with a dog that is smaller than her cat. Her work has appeared in magazines, newspapers, newsletters, and on websites. She is a member of the National Association of Science Writers.

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