Downton Abbey‘s been a tremendous hit for Masterpiece on PBS, and the public broadcaster is responding by importing another period British drama. Call the Midwife, which follows the adventures of a group of young midwives working with Anglican nuns in the exceedingly poor Poplar neighborhood in London’s East End, has been a giant hit in the UK, where its ratings beat out Downton Abbey. It’s a show about what it means for young women who aren’t yet having their own families, and who received their training in modernized hospitals, to deliver the babies of women who have much more experience in the ways of childbirth than their midwives do, and to do so in environments of extreme poverty because their patients mistrusted hospital care.
But it’s also a story about what it meant to be able to provide serious, personalized care for the first time in the immediate aftermath of the implementation of the National Health Service. Midwives made house calls, returned multiple times a day to check on the condition of frail infants, and would keep coming back as long as they were needed. Jessica Raine, who stars in Call the Midwife as a young nurse named Jenny Lee, told me:
The program really champions the NHS because it was very new. It had only just come about. And it’s difficult to imagine England without the NHS, but they didn’t have one. It was a really exciting new thing that the pooor in East London were really benefitting from, and they had not experienced it before. It champioins nurses, it champions people going out in the streetts, which I personally am really proud of becasue I don’t think people in that industry, they’re not celebrated. I love that midwifery has come to the forefront because it’s such an undocumented profession. You get to go into family’s houses, you get home visits, and every sitaution is different.
Call the Midwife is one of the rare cases of fifties or sixties nostalgia where it makes actual sense to want to bring back some elements of that period. There’s no reason to wish for the days of requiring women to have enemas and shave their pubic hair before going into labor, of course, but with serious cuts to National Health staffing underway, there’s something powerful about the dream of extremely personalized care and home support for new parents. The changes to American health care under the Affordable Care Act are just getting started, of course. But Call the Midwife is a reminder both that expanding access to care dramatically changes the lives of people who benefit from it, and requires both the medical professionals who treat them and the patients themselves to make cultural adjustments. It’s the stuff of both great drama, and of better health.