by Poppy Strange

L2 undergraduate

The TV drama Call the Midwife is a popular historical drama that currently spans six series and is broadcast on BBC One. This programme provides a fictional insight into the workings of post-war East End London. The series is based on the memories of Jennifer Worth, a midwife who worked in Poplar during this period, and whom the main character of the first couple of series is based on. First broadcast in 2009, it follows a group of midwives and nuns in Poplar during the late 1940s and then through into the following two decades. Whilst having a strong medical basis, the show centres on the stories of expectant mothers and other patients in the district, exploring wider social, cultural, and medical advances during this period.

A big problem in post-war Britain was the quality of housing. The programme clearly illustrates the awful living conditions that many working-class people were forced to live in. Access to good quality housing was a serious issue after the Second World War which ultimately led to the housing crisis of the 1960s. The squalid conditions are depicted throughout the midwives’ day-to-day work while they deliver babies and provide health care to all sections of society. The programme shows the terrible state of the buildings, shared toilet facilities and often shared water taps. The show highlights problems of overcrowding and the restricted living space families had, as well as the dereliction of the surrounding area as a result of bomb damage during the war. Call the Midwife examines the impact these living conditions had on the health of residents, children in particular. This depiction helps the viewer to understand the social conditions and stark reality of living in post-war Britain.

A key social and medical development explored by the series is the creation of the NHS in 1948. It explores how the NHS provided a level of healthcare for all sectors of society. Call the Midwife is based in the East End with many of the patients being members of the working class. These citizens often struggled to afford health care, as prior to the creation of the National Health Service, all medical care had to be paid for at point of delivery. Call the Midwife explores the financial relief that parents and families found through the provision of a government-funded body that took care of their medical needs.

Through its story lines the programme explores a wide range of issues; in particular, the advancements in women’s health care. This includes proper ante- and post-natal care for all women, the arrival of the contraceptive pill and the Thalidomide scandal. The contraceptive pill was a monumental advancement for women, as it finally gave them control over their bodies and the ability to choose whether or not they would procreate. The programme shows how contentious the introduction was for many people, not only from a religious standpoint, but also as a society in terms of the benefits it brought to women, which not everyone agreed with.

Overall, the programme presents a largely historically accurate programme with some embellishments for the sake of TV. The diverse storylines and rich style through its costumes and sets are very evocative of the period. The programme’s storylines and popularity have created an increased interest in post-war British life as well as the social, cultural, and medical advances that took place in the later part of the twentieth century with the audience of the programme reaching around 10 million viewers. The most recent series of Call The Midwife began on BBC One on 21 January 2018.

Further Reading:

Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2012).

Jennifer Worth, Shadows of the Workhouse (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2009).

The History of NHS England; http://www.nhs.uk/NHSEngland/thenhs/nhshistory/Pages/NHShistory1948.aspx