Already a huge draw for BBC, “Call the Midwife” might take awhile to grow on Yank audiences. A six-part drama, the series is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who worked as a nurse/midwife with an order of nuns in London’s depressed East End during the 1950s, and died last year. Episodic in its focus on different women’s stories, the serialized plots slowly gain momentum. While not great, coupled with the second season of “Upstairs Downstairs” it’s a perfectly fine way for PBS and Anglophiles to pass the time while awaiting the return of “Downton Abbey.”
The series stars Jessica Raine (who in her 1950s garb and hairdo brings to mind Kathryn Grayson) as the young Jennifer Lee, with Vanessa Redgrave providing her wise, rueful voice as the woman’s older self, narrating her memoirs. Midwifery, she explains, is “the very stuff of life,” and for awhile, the narrative plays like “Tales From the Womb,” with a whole lot of painful-sounding shrieking.
Raine is perfectly fine, but Jenny, described by her alter ego as someone who “knew nothing of life itself” before coming to the nuns, proves something of an empty vessel, a filter through which to see this gauzy past.
Fortunately, there’s ample life in the supporting players, among them Jenny Agutter as the senior nun; the splendid Judy Parfitt (“Dolores Claiborne”) as a dotty old sister, bordering on dementia; and, beginning in the second episode, Miranda Hart as Chummy, a privileged but ungainly lass who’s awkward in this economically depressed setting and, among other things, can’t master riding one of the bicycles upon which the midwives race around.
Hart nearly steals the show, particularly in her sweet, fumbling courtship with a local constable (Ben Caplan). When she tells him in a later episode, “I’ve hardly ever felt comfortable anywhere,” it can’t help but break your heart a little.
The individual stories prove more uneven, from a 15-year-old prostitute who Jenny tries to help, to a woman and her doting husband (who receive something of a surprise when the baby emerges). The show certainly provides an interesting portrait of class distinctions and how far medicine has come in 50-some-odd years, but it’s also rather soapy and predictable.
Still, “Midwife” — as adapted by the very busy Heidi Thomas, also responsible for the new “Upstairs Downstairs” — delivers enough poignant moments to be worth the investment, and will no doubt harbor additional resonance for some, given the current debate Stateside over women’s reproductive rights. The program also provides a meticulously crafted window into a period and place Americans seldom see on television.
“Downton” has already demonstrated PBS can expand its audience with the right programming. This limited series doesn’t rise to that level of addictiveness, but those who invite “Call the Midwife” into their homes shouldn’t find the viewing process particularly laborious.