TV series shows that people no longer fear what they can manage

2013-06-19 00:00

CALL the Midwife has returned to our television screens. For those without access to BBC Prime, it is a series of stories about young midwives attached to Nonnatus House, an Anglican convent in the East End of London. A group of nuns whose vocation is to serve the poor in the East End slums, train some nurses who are learning midwifery.

So here are the issues. Nurse Jenny Lee, the central character, has gone to London to escape an innocent but forbidden involvement with a married man. She joins the trainee nurses at Nonnatus House. Some of the trainee nurses are encountering the religious life for the first time and pondering it. Some of the nuns are wondering if they should return to secular life. Nuns and nurses alike get caught up in the day-to-day hardships of the people living in the London docklands.

Does that sound like gripping television? There are no sex scenes, no dramatic car chases, no tense mysteries. There are, admittedly, some graphic scenes of childbirth. Still, hardly the stuff of a box-office blockbuster. But, amazing even the producers, the series has become a huge hit. Series one was the most successful new drama series on the BBC for more than 10 years, drawing even more viewers than Downton Abbey. Series two drew more still. Series three is yet to come (we have only just started series two in South Africa). The series has become a hit in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, too.

It is based on the books of Jennifer Worth, her semi-autobiographical account of her days as a trainee at Nonnatus House — except that in real life, Nonnatus House was called the Convent of St John the Divine (no connection to the local Anglican order of the same name). The Community of St John the Divine still exists, although now based in Birmingham, not London, and, like many religious orders, numbers have dwindled and the nuns are mostly elderly. One of the present nuns still remembers nurse Jenny Lee, alias Jennifer Worth.

Why has the series become so successful? Why would anyone want to watch stories about nuns, about young girls who live innocent lives, about poor people struggling to keep going in the East End Dockland, and about the pain of childbirth?

Could it be that we are tired of the artificial lives of imaginary characters in the daily soapies? In Call the Midwife, the characters, whether the nuns, the midwives or the East Enders, are reflections of real people, facing real and everyday issues.

Could it be that viewers are drawn to a series that is not about sex or greed or crime, but about ordinary, good people trying in their own small way to make a difference?

Or could it be that they respond to the nuns — wise Sister Julienne, caustic but warm-hearted Sister Evangelina, or batty Sister Monica Jane who is clearly suffering from dementia? Maybe, in these days of megachurches and television evangelists, people are looking for a religion that is about service and sacrifice, rather than mass emotion. All of this, perhaps. I think one of the drawcards is nostalgia. The series is set in the post-war years of the fifties. People who lived in England in those years tell me that the series captures that time perfectly — the drabness, the poverty, but also the camaraderie. For those of us who did not live in the East End, perhaps the series reminds us, too, of a time gone by, when we too were young, idealistic and innocent. When times were hard but life was more simple. That world no longer exists. Much of the London docklands has become gentrified and sterile. Poplar, where the series is based, is next to Canary Wharf, with its smart apartment blocks and huge shopping arcade. The poorer parts of the East End are almost entirely populated by the new wave of immigrants from Jamaica, India and Pakistan. The nuns have gone. The glory of the great Anglo-Catholic slum churches, of which the Convent of St John was a product, has faded and few worshippers now fill their pews. The midwives no longer work from convents but from NHS hospitals — and modern young girls are probably not as innocent as Jenny Lee, Chummy and Trixie. Indeed, in real life, Jessica Raine, who plays nurse Jenny, has just moved in with her boyfriend, to the irritation of one hard-boiled columnist who had lost his heart to the beautiful and innocent Jenny Lee.

For many of us of a certain age, the past does seem more attractive. The world of fifties’ Natal no longer exists either. Life seemed safer. School children could ride to school on their bikes or catch the bus, which cost 4d (fourpence to the uninitiated) to get from town to Scottsville. Church Street was clean. Shops were gracious. The shop-ladies in John Orr’s and Ireland’s wore black dresses. Mostly, we weren’t involved in sex or drugs. Actually, we didn’t know about drugs. We wish it was still like that. Could it be that Call the Midwife appeals to our longing for a simpler past? Except, of course, that the past was not simple. The post-war East End was also the realm of prostitution and crime lords, such as the Cray brothers. Post-war Maritzburg was sitting on a time bomb of racial discrimination, as the late Tom Sharpe, whose obituary appeared in The Witness recently, reminded us in his novels. The past only seems simpler and safer in retrospect. We learnt to deal with the issues that faced us and what we have learnt to manage we no longer fear. Perhaps that is the point. The midwives of Poplar didn’t find it simple. Those nice, middle-class girls thrown into a rough world of poverty, surrounded by houses damaged by the war, and people damaged by the war, must have been frightened and uncertain. East-Enders must have seemed like a foreign people with a foreign language. Worth, in her novels, even provides a glossary to explain the cockney. But the girls learnt to manage and were no longer afraid. They made a difference.

Nice, middle-class white South Africans forced to face up to the rough poverty around us, to people damaged by apartheid, to people who speak a language that we don’t understand, are frightened and uncertain. But once we can manage we will no longer fear. We could make a difference. Some of us do. And maybe sometime in the future someone will write a television series about us.

• Ronald Nicolson is a retired

academic and an Anglican priest.

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