by Louise Perry
Tuesday, 29
December 2020
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Call the Midwife deals with diversity in the right way

Unlike The Vicar of Dibley, there is no clumsy attempt to insert a woke message
by Louise Perry
Call the Midwife came second in the Christmas Day TV ratings

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.

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Campbell P
Campbell P
1 year ago

But the point is the Vicar of Dibley episode IS so very much the Church of England now; jumping on any bandwagon on which or by which they can virtue-signal. It’s all so painfully embarrassing.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago
Reply to  Campbell P

I can imagine Welby nodding wisely as he watches the episode at home. I think the Anglican Church under the last string of Archbishops have converted 100 to Atheism for each they converted to Anglicanism. It is hard to get fired up about a religion where you suspect the heads do not even believe in it, but are more apostles of Secular Humanism and Woke Liberalism.

In London I always attend a couple Matins at St Pauls (you do not have to pay to get in if you go for a service). They are done in a small side alcove Chapel and attended by about 12 African Christians, half a dozen Chinese and Oriental Christians, a few Europeans, a dozen various foreigners, and maybe half a dozen middle aged White British. I always enjoy the service, and many of the people attending are quite devout, I am surprised not many people go just to avoid the entry fee but it seems most attendees actually are the very few who wish to attend a service in a Cathedral.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
1 year ago

Next year, the BBC will probably replace the Queens Speech with “Harry and Megan’s festive pleb lecture”.

Mark Beal
Mark Beal
1 year ago

I hardly ever agree with Louise Perry, but this is nail on head stuff. As a viewer it’s always painfully obvious to me if characters are there as people or as tokens – all too often these days it’s the latter, but Call the Midwife is a rare exception.

Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
Meghan Kathleen Jamieson
1 year ago

Call the Midwife overall does quite well with these issues. It helps no doubt that the setting involves a time and place where stories can focus on people from quite diverse communities and backgrounds. A show in a different setting might struggle to do the same and that would not make it inferior.

I have found that after the first few series, which were closely based on the books, the feel of the show changed. Initially is seemed a bit of a window to the period being described, not just it’s history but like reading a primary account. Subsequent seasons much more have the feel of a person with a 21st century perspective looking back to that period with a focus on what the 21st century thinks is important.

Michael Cowling
Michael Cowling
1 year ago

Nice article.

Aaron Kevali
Aaron Kevali
1 year ago

Good article – nobody has any objection to diverse casting, but it must have an internal logic and be vaguely consistent with what we know of history.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
1 year ago

CTM deals with diversity in the right way? Why is it even dealing with diversity? So how is the new All Creatures Great and Small going deal with the non-existent diversity of the time and place? I bet it finds a way.

Michael Cowling
Michael Cowling
1 year ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

I’m not sure that you get the point of the article. It deals with non Anglo-saxons because they were there, and it deals with them as they were at the time. Commendable.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

There was diversity in the East end of London after the war but hardly in rural Yorkshire. Why would CTM ignore diversity that was there and All Creatures introduce diversity that wasn’t?

E Wyatt
E Wyatt
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

The Christmas special of All Creatures did introduce diversity that was a little surprising given the time and place it was set in.

srhodes5
srhodes5
1 year ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

The environment within CTM allows for the expression of diversity. It beautifully portrayed the story of a dying man in the declining Jewish community. His subsequent funeral reduced me to tears.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

It’s amazing to me that so many people still have a TV. I never knew that Netflix and YouTube had undone so many.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Many people watch Netflix and You Tube on a computer and many with a computer watch these on TV. I use the TV if I am watching with a companion but computer if alone. (Or did I misunderstand you, and you are suggesting we only read?)

Alex Tickell
Alex Tickell
1 year ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It is important that we know what the population are being fed. Too easy to relax into a site like this or CW, containing mostly like minded people.
Although these sites are a comfort and a justification of our views, the big bad world goes on unhindered, indoctrinating and confusing the people. We are now approaching the tipping point on whether freedom of speech/thought will survive or be moderated for ever,

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
1 year ago

Does the show cover any serious topics, like happiness, the support of friends and neighbours, well being, sucess, improvements in living standards, the cessation of rationing?

Hosias Kermode
Hosias Kermode
1 year ago

Yes. Watch it on Netflix from Day One. The friendships between the nuns and the midwives, the sense of community, the arrival of TVs, cars for ordinary families, new housing actually built for real British families, slum clearance etc. It is all there. And of course every week there is the joy and miracle of new life.

Derek M
Derek M
1 year ago

I doubt they’ll have much about the problems created by immigration or say the support for Enoch Powell amongst the indigenous working class in east London in the sixties, perhaps that would be ‘problematic’

srhodes5
srhodes5
1 year ago

YES!!

Lillian Fry
Lillian Fry
1 year ago

Best to read the three diaries by the woman upon whom this series is based. Far more interesting than the tv series and, of course, true to life in all its variety. The diarist encountered a great deal of “diversity” in 1950s and 60s Britain including a woman who birthed 24 children, incest, remarkable cases of survival in dire circumstances and other real life events.