TV Review: Show finds grace, hope hidden in dark corners

A young, newly-minted nurse is dispatched to the home of an aging veteran to tend the old war wounds in his leg that never healed. While she’s initially repelled by his roach-infested apartment, the old man’s gentle, upbeat spirit soon wins her over. He has managed to sustain it, even after losing his family, and his health, in three different wars. A friendship develops, and the young woman and a friend bring the old gentleman a few moments of happiness in his last days.

It’s the kind of quiet story of human kindness and connection that sometimes happens in real life—but almost never on television. And it’s the kind of story that makes PBS’ Call the Midwife a real treasure.

Jessica Raine stars in the BBC series Call the Midwife, shown on PBS stations in the U.S. PHOTO COURTESY NEAL STREET PRODUCTIONS

The British TV series is based on a memoir by the late Jennifer Worth, recalling her experiences as a nurse and midwife in the East End of London in the 1950s. While Americans obsess over another British import, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife has surpassed Downton in the ratings back in England. It’s that good: sometimes tragic, sometimes funny, always moving and humane. In this portrait of a resilient community, undergirded by faith and dedicated to serving others, there’s much for United Methodists to love.

Jessica Raine stars as Jenny Lee, the young nurse who tends the old soldier. Born into privilege, Jenny has “never known poverty or filth or families sleeping four to a bed” until her arrival at Nonnatus House, a convent of Anglican nuns. There, lay nurses serve along with the nuns, caring for pregnant women and delivering babies.

From the first episode’s opening scene—two housewives fist-fighting in the street over a man—viewers realize there’ll be no sugarcoating of the realities of poverty. The midwives’ patients live in squalor, make bad choices, and carry on despite incredible odds.

At the hands of TV scriptwriters, nuns usually emerge as caricatures—repressed prudes or rascally rebels. The nuns of Nonnatus House prove much more interesting. There’s the broad-shouldered, no-nonsense Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), who suffers no fools and minces no words, and Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt), an elderly nun obsessed with astrology, cake and knitting. It’s never clear whether her eccentricity is a symptom of the early stages of dementia, or just sheer orneriness. Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) is the gentle, wise and open-hearted sister-in-charge.

The nuns possess a practical, roll-up-your-sleeves kind of faith. But we see hints that this faith has depth. In the first season’s finale, a Christmas special, Jenny and Sister Evangelina tenderly bathe a frightened and filthy homeless woman with a heartbreaking backstory, to a haunting soundtrack of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” It’s one of the most moving, and theologically astute, depictions of the “true spirit of Christmas” ever aired on the small screen.

While the actors populating American TV shows tend to fit a mold—conventionally attractive, fashionably thin and dentally perfect—Call the Midwife abounds with interesting-looking characters, like lay nurse Camilla, aka Chummy (Miranda Hart). She’s a big, awkward woman who fled her upper-class background, where she never fit in, for a career as a midwife. Struggling against monumental self-doubt, she finds fulfillment and love in the East End.

Vanessa Redgrave, as the voice of the mature Jenny, narrates the series.

“In the East End, I found grace and hope hidden in the darkest corners,” she reminisces. “I found tenderness in squalor; laughter amid filth. I found purpose and a path, and I worked with a passion for the best reason of all: I did it for love.”

How often do you hear words like “grace and hope” on a TV soap opera? Call the Midwife is one you don’t want to miss.

The American broadcast of Season Two of Call the Midwife begins March 31 on PBS. Check local listings. Some PBS stations are currently re-broadcasting Season One episodes; they’re also available via DVD and iTunes.


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Mary Jacobs

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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