A period drama that really delivers

Call the Midwife
Sundays, 8.30pm, ABC1

What's it all about?

Based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, this six-part BBC mini-series is set in the 1950s, where a group of nice gals do their best to deliver one of life's most essential services to the working-class ladies of London's grim and grimy East End.

Our view

As a man, watching this walking, talking recruitment poster for the world's second-oldest profession can feel a little like eavesdropping on secret women's business: the world of Call the Midwife is one in which the blokes sit outside on the staircase, puffing hard on a Woodbine, largely indifferent or ignorant, while upstairs the missus is being coaxed along with the help of one of the delightfully competent and well-spoken lasses from Nonnatus House. None of this birth centre nonsense, thank you very much.

Ostensibly at the centre of things is Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), the rather fetching young thing whose elder self (Vanessa Redgrave) narrates the story from her memoirs. But in this second episode it has become clear that new arrival Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne (Miranda Hart) has every chance of becoming the real heart of the story.

Chummy, as she prefers to be called, is a plummy giant who apparently knows the royal family and uses words such as "tickety-boo" and "botheration" and dreams of becoming a missionary in Africa. Asked by one of the nuns at Nonnatus if she feels called to the sisterhood, she replies: "Oh gosh no. One always hopes there'll be some sort of chap along the way."

There's more than a touch of Upstairs Downstairs about it all, but this is an upside-down version, in which the posh girls do all the hard work at the service of the horrendously poor citizens in the teeming streets beyond the convent wall.

Like disease and the National Health system, dirty realism and sentimental nostalgia are locked in perpetual battle in Call the Midwife. The aesthetic is part Roger Mayne street photos and part BBC costume drama. Gritty, but pretty with it.

The best line on that score comes in this episode from Father Joe (Stanley Townsend), the kindly-tough Catholic priest who finds a home for a pregnant teenaged prostitute and then arranges for her baby to be adopted out without her consent, because he believes it's the best chance for both of them. "Poverty isn't bad housing, dirty clothing, families of 10," he says. "It's never having been loved, or even respected. Not knowing the difference between love and abuse, a kiss that wasn't down payment on a blow."

In a sentence

Mawkish at times, compelling at others, but any doubts about the dramatic viability of the premise were blown away by the breech birth in this episode.

Our rating: B

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