There are some programmes that I would never have watched if I wasn’t reviewing them for my job and Call the Midwife is somewhere near the top of the list. However, over the last three years, I’ve found it to be a rather charming piece of period drama albeit one that is wildly inconsistent. I thought that the last series was particularly moving as Jessica Raine’s Jenny left Poplar after suffering a tragic loss and as a result the show lost its lead character. Due to Jenny’s departure, Call the Midwife’s third Christmas Special felt a little disjointed as characters who had previously been supporting players were tasked with taking centre stage.
This was certainly evident in the fact that timid midwife Cynthia had arguably one of the biggest storylines as she struggled to decide whether or not she would take holy orders. As somebody who has seen every episode of Call the Midwife I was personally surprised that Cynthia wanted to become a nun. Writer Heidi Thomas is usually great at slow-burning storylines such as Sheilagh Turner’s leaving the convent but in the case of Cynthia it all appeared awfully rushed. Cynthia’s decision was told against her aiding of an improvised couple who she’d first met when the husband had delivered a tree to Nonnatus House. It was soon revealed that the couple had met whilst at a Victorian psychiatric hospital and were now struggling to cope with the outside world. With the discovery that the woman, Nancy, was pregnant; Cynthia made it her aim to care for them both and as a result made the crucial decision of where her life would go next.
Institutions were a recurring theme throughout this episode of Call the Midwife as another story saw new recruit Patsy aid two pregnant teenagers with their journey to a Dickensian mother and baby home. Rather than being the gentle, caring place that they were hoping for; expectant mothers Avril and Denise found themselves in a grotty abode run by a gin-soaked matron. Ruth Sheen’s performance as the matron was one of my own personal highlights as she gave a scenery-chewing turn as the institution’s domineering presence. However, it wasn’t long before the loud-mouthed Avril informed the midwives of the state of the home which resulted in Sheen’s matron fleeing the house before the cavalry arrived. Despite the fact they had their usual deliveries to attend to; it appeared to be no trouble at all for Patsy and Chummy to essentially take over the running of the house. Here they were able to deal with Denise’s chicken pox and help the emotionally-fragile Avril bond with the child she didn’t think she wanted.
Heidi Thomas must have thought that stories about decrepit homes and Victorian institutions weren’t that festive so decided to give the more overtly comic characters the Christmas-based stories. For example we had a scene in which Sister Monica Joan went to great lengths to find a tree that was grown in allied soil. I felt it was a shame that, as Sister Monica Joan, Judy Parfitt had been sidelined somewhat and only popped up occasionally to provide several batty lines of dialogue. Elsewhere, the midwives were being tasked with putting on the annual show which this year saw plenty of children struggling to cope with basic rhythm as they participated in a snowflake dance. Fred was also upset when he was rumbled as the Poplar Santa Claus and later had to be part of the show himself in order to keep up his rouse. Indeed the final scenes, which featured the show and the characters’ sitting down to enjoy Christmas dinner, were almost written to make us forget about the many hardships we had witnessed up to that point.
One of my major problems with Call the Midwife is how easily the women of Nonnatus House can come in and help out characters who’ve suffered years of neglect. For example, Cynthia’s work with Victor and Nancy appeared to be the most assistance the couple had had in years and we’re lead to believe that they would’ve continued to live in squalor had it not been for the future nun’s appearance in their lives. Similarly Chummy and Patsy’s overhaul of the mother and baby home appeared to be no bother for the duo as they made the institution into a place that expectant mothers would actually want to go to. The most interesting storyline was Cynthia’s struggles with her calling however I would’ve liked a bit more build up to it as I felt it came slightly out of the blue. Despite this I felt that Bryony Hannah dealt beautifully with taking centre stage and I’m just upset that she wasn’t featured more prominently in the series prior to tonight’s special.
The biggest treat for regular Call the Midwife fans was the appearance of Vanessa Redgrave who, as the older version of Jenny, has been providing the drama’s narration since it began. Redgrave’s turn as the older Jenny was fleeting at best but I felt that it was incredible that she could recall moments that she herself wasn’t a part of. I also found it rather clunky that the final line of the episode was Jenny’s husband Philip telling her that she should write her own memoirs. Whether Redgrave will continue to narrate the post-Jenny adventures of Call the Midwife remains to be seen however her voice has been an integral part of the series up to this point.
Ultimately this year’s Call the Midwife Christmas Special provided just the right balance between Dickensian squalor and festive cheer in what I found to be an untaxing festive instalment. The performances were almost universally great whilst the stories were incredibly involving even if their outcomes were utterly predictable. My main problem was the fact that the drama feels a little rudderless without the presence of a main character to steer the rest of the action. Thankfully, there’s a new face joining the gang at Nonnatus House next year in what I’m sure will be another wildly successful series of Call the Midwife.
What did you think to tonight’s Call the Midwife? Are you looking forward to the new series?
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