For the past couple of months on Sunday evenings, American educational television channels have been broadcasting two BBC programs centered on women and our experiences/challenges/talents: “Call the Midwife” and “The Bletchley Circle.” Both programs are based on historical women living and working in the 20th century. “Call the Midwife” is an adaptation and enlargement of the memoirs of Jennifer Worth; “The Bletchley Circle” tells of the lives after World War II ended of some of the women who worked at Bletchley Park in England to crack the German codes, an act that stopped the mass sinking of British ships and most likely began to turn the tide for the Allied Forces. Both are set in the 1950’s, an era when women were being encouraged/forced to return to “feminine” spheres and activities after the hiatus occasioned by so many men’s being in the military, leaving jobs usually filled by men open to anyone who could do them.
I’ve been riveted to both series from the beginning because the stories are so feminist and the women acting in the television versions have conveyed with such clarity just how special their characters were in the fields of medicine/midwifery and military intelligence. Every week the secular nurses, along with the Roman Catholic nuns who run the “house” from which the midwives go forth to help pregnant women living in the East End of London in less-than-ideal circumstances. Every week, we see at least one tiny new-born being guided out of its mother’s body and swaddled in whatever blanket is at hand. Sometimes, these moments are cherished by all involved, but in at least one segment, the mother and the midwives feared for the infant’s safety. The tiny baby boy was the product of an extra-marital union between the white mother and a black man, so the white husband is ready to throw away or even kill the new-born as he vents his rage and sense of being betrayed by his wife. All the while the midwives are delivering babies, the program deftly portrays the personal lives of the nurses and nuns, all of whom are sharply delineated by the scripts. There is the old nun, played to perfection by Judith Parfitt, who is slightly mentally “off,” but who quotes marvelous poetry to suit the occasion and who values old ways and objects over what she fears about the present with its bustle and sharp edges. The central character, Jenny, grows from a novice midwife with theories that can’t handle the messiness of her patients’ poverty-ladened lives into a mature woman who loses her fiancé to a freak accident at his work and who comes to understand that she can no longer function in a strict hospital setting where she is not allowed to follow a given pregnancy from beginning to delivery.
These programs invite viewers to take women seriously in fields where they have been traditionally accepted but undervalued by the medical establishment and in fields where they have been deemed less than qualified for outstanding performances. A final “plus” surrounding these two series is the atmosphere on the sets. After each program, actors as well as directors/writers speak about what’s it’s like to be part of the program. The male directors have both commented on two ways the atmosphere seems different because of the minor role played by male actors. First, they say it’s hard to get the actors to stop talking among themselves animatedly so as to progress the actual filming of the segment; then, they comment on how refreshing it has been to work with mostly women because there is so little competition and back-biting that usually pervades such sessions in the high end television world.
So if you’ve not known about these series, find them on Netflix or whatever provider you use. Your viewing time with be richly rewarded by watching stellar actors telling moving and powerful stories that do not have simple plot lines or clichéd emotional qualities.