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History from Below Is Where You Find It

Ignore the sepia filter — Call the Midwife, which returns in 2023, has long been one of the most radical programmes on British television.


Call the Midwife was an instant hit when it was first broadcast on BBC1 in 2012; the second series was commissioned on the strength of the pilot episode alone, which attracted almost ten million viewers. It has now run to eleven series, with a twelfth scheduled to be broadcast in 2023. The series is loosely based on the memoir of Jennifer Worth, who began her career in Whitechapel in the 1950s; her autobiographical trilogy has sold almost a million copies. She is fictionalised both in the books and the television series as ‘Jenny Lee’, a trainee midwife who works with the nuns of the Nonnatus Convent to serve the local community in Poplar.

Poplar is an apt setting for Call the Midwife as one of the poorest areas of London and the United Kingdom; it’s today part of Tower Hamlets, and almost literally in the shadow of the financial towers of Canary Wharf. In 1921, the area had become famous for the Poplar Rates Rebellion, during which George Lansbury (mayor for the area in the previous year and, later, leader of the Labour Party) had led the borough council in the refusal to collect local taxes needed to support the area’s progressive spending budget. Thirty councillors had been jailed for their actions, including Lansbury’s daughter-in-law Minnie, who caught pneumonia in prison and died the following year.

In 1951, the construction of a pioneering council estate — named Lansbury Estate, in tribute — was used as a live exhibition of architecture for the Festival of Britain; in the late 1960s the area would gain a second visionary piece of social housing in Alison and Peter Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens. Poplar is marked historically, therefore, by both poverty and progress. Such is the setting for Call the Midwife.

The television programme is easy to dismiss as sentimental stories of mothers and babies, and a hazy Hovis nostalgia for a fairly conservative period in British history. But both the original texts and the TV adaptation are quietly revolutionary. Worth wrote her books after an article in the Royal College of Midwives Journal called for someone to do for midwifery what James Herriot had done for veterinarians; among the cosy, funny stories about trainee nurses and convent life, though, are often harrowing tales about the experiences of mothers and babies in mid-century poverty. Worth was a passionate advocate of women’s reproductive rights because of the many traumatic cases she encountered throughout her career. In 2005, she wrote a piece in the Guardian attacking Mike Leigh’s film Vera Drake for — as she saw it — downplaying the risks and brutality of the backstreet abortions that she and her colleagues so frequently had to deal with.

The television show, too, often deals with these issues — the first ten series are set before abortion was partially decriminalised, and the topic of unwanted pregnancies is revisited throughout the programme, set against stories of loss and heartbreak as well as joy and excitement. So, too, are many other subjects that destabilise the idea of the show as a simpering nostalgia-fest. For example, a pregnant woman from Jamaica experiences racial abuse from her neighbours in the second series; and in the seventh a Jamaican midwife, Lucille, is added to the team. The empire also features in storylines about missionary work in medical clinics in South Africa and the Child Migrants Programme. There are storylines exploring gay aversion therapy, the experience of an intersex patient, and homophobia as a community and institutional tension; and topics around sex — including the role of sex workers, the lives of single mothers, the risks of sexually transmitted diseases, and the experiences and consequences of sexual abuse — are continually interwoven into the plot. Class, too, is inescapable: the chosen setting of Poplar could encourage a chorus line of cheerful Cockneys who are happy with their lot in life, but in fact the issues of work, money, poverty, hardship, and aspiration are fundamental. The complexities of life in a deprived neighbourhood are critical to the plotlines, which are set against big historical storylines such as the Thalidomide scandal or the introduction of the contraceptive pill.

Call the Midwife is set in a period when the welfare state had supposedly solved the health inequalities that marked British society in the decades before the war; certainly, the lives of people in Poplar were dramatically improved by the provision of healthcare free at the point of access. But nuns, like those at the fictional Nonnatus Convent, had nursed the local community before the NHS existed, and they continued to do so alongside NHS doctors and nurses for decades after its creation. The stories of Call the Midwife show that big national historical narratives don’t always capture the complexities of local communities. It might be an unlikely vehicle for radical historiography, but this cosy Sunday night television programme goes some way towards heeding E. P. Thompson’s call to rescue the poor of Poplar from the condescension of posterity to which they might otherwise be subjected.