Based on the same-named (and partly fictionalized) memoirs of Jennifer Worth (nee Lee), Call the Midwife (2012) is a new BBC series garnering very high ratings and excellent reviews comparable to that other recent transatlantic hit, ITV's Downton Abbey. I was attracted to it because series creator Heidi Thomas was also responsible for the short-lived revival of Upstairs, Downstairs, which in its first of two, too short seasons especially, this reviewer thought was just marvelous. Call the Midwife has many of the same charms, with rich characterizations and intriguing, historically interesting stories and situations.
Call the Midwife - Season One consists of six just-under-an-hour episodes presented across two single-sided DVDs. They're in widescreen with excellent audio and video but, alas, no extra features.
As in the book, Call the Midwife is set in Poplar, a particularly poor section of London's East End, where in the late 1950s newly graduated midwife nurse Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) goes to work at Nonnatus House, an Anglican nunnery based on Worth's real place of employment, Whitechapel's Sisters of St. John the Divine. (Many American viewers seem confused as to whether Jenny herself has taken vows, but the show makes perfectly clear several times that no, she has not, nor have several other of the nurses.)
Episodes trace Jenny's steady adjustment to life among the poor, usually following her adventures in an "A" story while a secondary "B" subplot follows one of the other nurses or one of the nuns, and sometimes either or both stories parallel their situations with various expectant mothers and their husbands (or their lack thereof).
The show is extremely well acted by its mix of young and veteran talent. In addition to Raine's sensitive portrait of Jenny, making the strongest impressions are comedienne Miranda Hart as Nurse "Chummy" Browne (Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley Browne), a comically towering, shy and awkward young nurse with an upper class background; Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris, Rosemary & Thyme), a short-tempered, no-nonsense nun and midwife particularly annoyed by the eccentric, possibly senile behavior of elderly Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt, ER); and Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter, The Railway Children, Walkabout, Logan's Run), the diplomatic, sensitive but rock-solid mother superior.
An unseen Vanessa Redgrave as the older Jenny provides the lovely opening and closing narration. It's taken directly from the book and, reportedly, shortly before the real Jenny's death in 2011 Heidi Thomas promised that only Worth's words would be used in future episodes.
Rounding out the case are Helen George as fun-loving Nurse Trixie Franklin, Laura Main as Sister Bernadette, Bryony Hannah as Nurse Cynthia Miller, Cliff Parisi as handyman Fred, and Ben Caplan as PC Peter Noakes.
Miranda Hart's Chummy especially stands out. The character is one of the most endearingly and authentically awkward women I've seen in years and, as the cliché goes, an instant classic. Expect to see Hart win a lot of awards for this.
The stories are in some ways predictable. Jenny befriends an aged, infirm tenement dweller named Joe (Roy Hudd), but is repulsed by his cockroach-infested flat. In that same episode, a pregnant woman is mysteriously disturbed by her pregnancy and her doting older husband's excitement. The reason for her behavior is predictable, but like the rest of the show's writing and production, so exquisitely played that one easily forgives its obviousness. I'm certainly looking forward to season two.
Video & Audio
The six nearly hour-long episodes are presented across two single-sided, dual-layered discs, with each show presented in an excellent and apparently unaltered 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer. The Dolby Digital stereo, English only and accompanied by optional SDH English subtitles, is state of the art.
Supplements include a 10-minute (and spoiler-filled) featurette that includes interviews with the cast and crew.
Call the Midwife is terrific. A Blu-ray has been released simultaneously, so owners of those players may want to consider that first, otherwise this DVD is Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.