Black Lives Matter comes to rural Oxfordshire in a Vicar of Dibley Christmas special that has now received more than two hundred complaints from BBC viewers. Dawn French’s character, Geraldine, puts up a BLM poster, takes the knee, and delivers a pious little speech to the camera in a tone of voice better suited to reprimanding a child. Personally, I was more offended by the quality of the writing in this new episode than I was by the political message, but I can understand the letter writers’ annoyance.
If you’re looking for Christmas TV to watch on catch-up this week, skip the Vicar of Dibley, and turn to the BBC special that this year won the Christmas Day ratings battle (beaten only by the Queen’s speech). Eight years and nine series on, Call the Midwife is as popular as ever, and deservedly.
Don’t be fooled by the chocolate box aesthetic and overbearing soundtrack — this drama about midwives and nuns living and working in 1950s-1960s Poplar is as gritty as anything else on TV. The show regularly tackles serious topics like poverty, abortion, slum housing, interracial marriage, disability, domestic violence, incest, dementia, and the threat of nuclear war, and does so with compassion and grace.
Call the Midwife has plenty of romance and death-defying action, but it also examines forms of human experience that are less often depicted on TV. This year’s Christmas special, for instance, is focused on relationships that are rarely given sympathetic attention anywhere else: between a father and his adult daughter, between a mother and her stillborn babies, between two middle aged spinsters, and between an elderly woman and the young people who care for her.
I’m not aware of any other primetime TV show that depicts disabled people with greater sensitivity. A prominent character in the current series is played by a young actor with Down’s Syndrome, and plot lines in previous series have focused on the Thalidomide crisis, a romance between a disabled man and woman, a family wrestling with the question of whether or not they should institutionalise a baby born with Spina Bifida, and an order of nuns who care for orphaned disabled children.
The lazy option for screenwriters trying to diversify their output is to insert women or non-white characters into anachronistic settings and ask us to suspend our disbelief (a move that is often met with resistance). But the writers of Call the Midwife have chosen a setting that allows them to focus on women’s lives and incorporate a range of diverse characters without compromising on historical accuracy.
For instance, one of the main characters in the current series is a Jamaican midwife and her fiancé: God-fearing people who often act as the voice of social conservatism in the show. In previous series we have met Chinese refugee children, orphaned during the Great Leap Forward and brought to the UK by missionaries, and a recently arrived Sylheti woman who is suffering from diphtheria. All of these plots make perfect sense within the context of post-war East London.
The popularity of Call the Midwife proves there is no need to clumsily insert a woke message, as the Vicar of Dibley writers have done in this year’s Christmas special. Audiences are not hostile to diversity on TV — they just don’t want to be patronised.