Call the Midwife‘s annual Christmas special never fails to offer tears, smiles, thought provocation and entertainment, with 2016 being no exception. This year’s outing sees half the characters leaving the familiar setting of Nonnatus House in Poplar for the Hope Clinic in South Africa. However, it felt as if, while the A-List characters were whisked off an adventure, the B-List characters were left on a porch at home. It may be harsh to say but their loss wasn’t felt, apart from Sister Monica-Joan, whose comic relief is always a jewel in the midwives’ dynamic.
However, perhaps it was right not to have her endearing eccentricities holding court, as it wouldn’t have been in keeping with the central themes of the feature length special: the lives of black women, under Hendrik Verwoerd’s apartheid. This may sound like heavy going for a Christmas special, and for Call the Midwife in general, but avid fans such as myself may have noticed that the show is making a move towards tougher storylines; recently tackling the Thalidomide scandal, which saw more than 10,000 babies born with birth defects.
The show has touched on racism before, with immigrant mothers under the care of Nonnatus House, but the radically new setting offered a greater exploration into how culture and oppression influenced the lives of new black mothers. As Sinead Cusack’s character, a no-nonsense missionary doctor, tells us, colonisation has stripped away what little freedom the women of the area had. All that was left for them was motherhood, their sole occupation to procreate and nurture their children. With this idea in mind, it was heartbreaking to learn that one of the expectant mothers was actually suffering from a phantom pregnancy, so desperate to conceive that her mind had mimicked the symptoms – including labour contractions. Call the Midwife has never done a phantom pregnancy before, and honestly it didn’t really feel like it was given the credence it should have, especially when it was purposely pointed out how much this pregnancy meant to the mother and what it meant for her place in her society. There were juxtaposing scenes of the mother, devastated, comforted by Barbara (Charlotte Ritchie), to all the major characters frolicking and enjoying themselves on a ‘Whites Only’ beach. An attempt was made by Barbara to observe the ridiculousness of it all, but this was just used as fuel for a conversation between Trixie (Helen George) and Tom (Jack Ashton), commenting on how wonderful and marriage-worthy Barbara was. Call the Midwife was clearly only committed to one episode away from its London home, so any issues raised had to either have quick solutions (Hope Clinic was saved, Dr Myra was expected to make a full recovery, and the ‘villain’ was persuaded to let the water pipes through his land so that they could get fresh water), or they had to be left ongoing without real hope of resolution.
Having said this, it would be foolish to expect solutions to such serious matters within a 90 min episode and the writers should be congratulated on not ignoring the issue, but giving them gravitas. A very strong aspect that usually stands out in Call the Midwife is its scriptwriting, often beautifully crafted, full of wisdom and thought provoking notions. Many writers betray the characters to fulfil a plotline they have in mind, but that’s not the case for this show – each character is believable and thoroughly developed, so we truly feel like we know the inhabitants of Nonnatus House. There were moments of welcomed comic relief comparing the gruff, British can-do attitude of Phyllis, with the frivolous, aesthetic based concerns of Trixie. This was also felt when observing the slightly pompous attitude of the Brits with the primitive state of the African clinic. Although at times the transitions did not feel very graceful, there was an overall nice balance of comedy and joy with the tragic and sad.
As Call the Midwife Christmas Specials go, this is probably one of its strongest – the change of scene was refreshing and engaged the audience’s attention well. Although I disagree with how they concluded the issues raised, a conscious effort was made to be authentic and honest, which is to be admired. The characters remain the loving, good people who they always are; but now it’s time to return to the B-list members of Nonnatus (who one assumes have just continued in Poplar, quietly resenting those who got to go away) for another year’s instalment of this excellent show.
Call the Midwife‘s Christmas Special is available to watch via the BBC iPlayer. The show’s sixth season is expected to start in January 2017.