‘Call the Midwife” was a massive hit in England when it aired there earlier this year. The six-part drama, which begins a run on PBS tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 2, actually drew slightly higher ratings than “Downton Abbey,” the series that, along with “Sherlock,” has revived PBS’s cachet among American audiences.
Set in 1957 in the gritty East End of London, though, “Call the Midwife” is about as far as you can get from a lush Yorkshire country estate. And the subject matter, which includes a number of difficult births, primitive obstetrics, shrieking women, and at least one syphilitic lump, is not exactly crumpets and tea. Rather than the upstairs-downstairs setup of “Downton,” “Call the Midwife” is more of a downstairs-downstairs situation, with dire poverty, dirt, insect-ridden tenement buildings, and desperation. There is no glamour here.
Why would this series, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, become so addictive and so popular? Because despite the blood and the labor, “Call the Midwife” is filled with heart. Written and produced by Heidi Thomas of “Cranford” and the new “Upstairs Downstairs,” the show’s focus is always on uplift, on the gems of humanity and redemption found in the darkest of corners. Thomas captures the rising sense of optimism for England’s then-new National Health Service, which brought free health care to the needy, and she draws us into the inspiring way one young nurse — Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) — learns the power of compassion during her service.
Plus, the regular characters are quite appealing, even while the pregnancy cases of the week sometimes end poorly. The midwives, some of whom are nuns, live together in Nonnatus House, a convent. Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) is an off-kilter poet, while Chummy (Miranda Hart) is a sweetly klutzy aristocrat. OK — at moments, I wondered if they all might start singing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria.” They can be a little too darn lovable. But “Call the Midwife” isn’t meant to be a deep character study. These women lead with kindness, even when, as with Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), it’s cloaked in gruffness. They try to bring out the best in the women they help, many of whom are depressed and — heavens! — fallen.
As Jenny, encountering the lives of the lower class for the first time, Raine is a particularly welcoming presence. She’s a calm-faced actress who, at moments, resembles a young Judy Garland. In the premiere, she has to help a woman who already has 24 children. Jenny does not take a judgmental stance toward this mother — and Thomas doesn’t seem to want us to, either. We are meant to be touched by all the love in that crowded home and between the mother and father. Personally, I would have preferred to see “Call the Midwife” delve further into the hard times that a poor family with 24 kids had to deal with, instead of the more romanticized version we get.
But this is not that show. There’s more sweet than bitter here, as the midwives make their way through the slums on their bicycles. I suspect that is why the series, which has already been renewed for a second round of episodes, struck a chord in England, and why it just might do the same here. While “Mad Men” invites us to look back and compare and contrast, “Call the Midwife” is more interested in touching us with poignant stories about less cynical times. Where there is life, this show about birth suggests, there is hope.