The Socialist 19 March 2014 |
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Review: Call the Midwife
The third series of the BBC's Call the Midwife finished recently. The programme is based on the real life memoirs of Jennifer Worth (formerly Lee) who worked as a midwife in London's east end in the 1950s.
The series finale saw Jenny leave Nonnatus House, the nunnery her midwifery team work from. Jenny and her fellow midwives work under the instruction of an order of nuns, who were the traditional providers of maternity care for poor women in the Poplar area prior to the launch of the NHS.
For me the most poignant episode was in the second series. Nora Harding and her husband already have eight children when she discovers she is pregnant again. The family live between two rooms and are in dire poverty.
Distraught at the idea of another mouth to feed, Nora has an illegal backstreet abortion - selling everything she can to get the money - which leaves her fighting for life.
Jenny says: "Nora's life was saved by doctors who asked no questions, but she never conceived again." She explains that, in the expansion of council housing, the family was relocated to a larger house outside London.
The midwives all come from relatively well-off, educated backgrounds. This contrasts with the deprived conditions in Poplar.
The area was devastated by bombing during the war, the local workhouse had not long closed its doors, many families still lived in one or two rooms with a shared bathroom.
Maternity care and labour make a good prism for the audience to look through, particularly given the post-war baby boom.
But the programme's interest stretches much further - it provides insightful social commentary on a unique period in British history.
The main running theme is the huge impact that the introduction of the NHS, and the welfare state in general, had for working class communities - slum clearance, health promotion, social work.
The programme documents the rapid influx of medical improvements that followed the launch of the NHS.
The women of Poplar can't believe their luck when gas and air become available - the doctor ends up running between houses with the machine as every woman in labour demands it. A mass chest x-ray programme is launched to combat tuberculosis.
Two baby brothers whose mother is suffering depression because she thinks their illness is her fault are diagnosed with the little-known spina bifada.
The doctor points out that a decade earlier this would not have been identified and they would never have survived.
Issues such as prostitution, 'illegitimacy', racism and domestic violence are dealt with sensitively, while giving a relatively realistic impression of how hard life was - there are no guaranteed happy endings.
Every episode emphasises how impossible life was for working class people before the welfare state.
It should make everyone who watches it redouble our efforts to stop the Con-Dems' onslaught of cuts and privatisation that threatens to reverse the progress shown in the programme.
Call the Midwife has been renewed for a Christmas special and fourth series next year. It remains to be seen whether the makers will do justice to the story and characters once no longer following the real stories of Jenny Lee and without the lead character. But I'll certainly be tuning in to find out.