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DVD: 'Call the Midwife' One of 2012's Best
November 30, 2012  | By Eric Gould

Men, you might have to peek through a hand over your eyes. (Women, feel free to roll your eyes if the men do so.) But no matter how you watch it, Call the Midwife er, delivers a worthy and unvarnished look at the low-tech home-birthing methods of the Fifties, and carries with it a charm and earnestness that goes deep into the heart and never leaves.

Based on the best-selling memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the admirable BBC series (virtually a six-episode miniseries) that ran on PBS earlier this fall has now become available on DVD. And good news: the surprise British hit has been renewed for a second season in the UK, and will be coming our way again.

Set in the early Fifties in the post-war East End of London, Call the Midwife follows brand-new nursing school graduate Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine, top photo, second from right) as she is thrown into the fray of home delivery while working with an order of nuns that oversees health services in the impoverished neighborhood, where hospital delivery is still a luxury. Jenny, portraying the young Jennifer Worth, is green and naive, while head nurse Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) is hardened and wise to the hardships and moral dilemmas of the community she serves.

Nurse Jenny and the other young midwives bring medical care and midwifery to the downtrodden families, many who live with a dozen and more squeezed into small flats and skinny gray townhouses. They bicycle through the streets, past the rubble left by the war's German bombs, traveling alleyways crisscrossed with hanging laundry. You get the sense that as the girls introduce the uneducated to modern health care, contraception and safe sex, it's more than laundry that's finally being aired. As the city is being rebuilt out of the rubble, so are new ideas of society and public health being remade.

Call the Midwife brings the Fifties alive with first-rate art direction and photography, giving us a portrait of health care and community that is as relevant now as it was then. Just like the current film Lincoln, Call the Midwife magically resurrects  a specific period, but also brings its subject forward into a current debate — in this case,  a discussion of who pays for health care, who gets it, and why everyone benefits when the public is cared for.

The series accomplishes this with great commitment and compassion. Call the Midwife pulls no punches, going unflinchingly into the harrowing moments of home birthing (in basic, virtually primitive conditions). It also dives just as deeply into the moral dilemmas found within the community. And as it excavates this difficult territory, it delivers one of the most sincere television experiences you'll have. In the style of an earlier UK series, All Creatures Great and Small (1978-80), it's without a drip of irony, and in our twittered snarkosphere, it's an absorbing and refreshing departure.

Raines is an excellent choice as Jenny, displaying a remarkable combination of youth, weariness and British resolve. But the real star of the series is Miranda Hart (top photo, second from left) as nurse Chummy Brown, a largish, bumbling newcomer to the nuns' practice who's fleeing the constraints of her upper-class roots. Brown is following her call to be a nurse and help the East Enders, much to the dismay of her titled family. The character often brings comic relief, and while it's a divergent casting choice, Hart has enormous depth, and we're the luckier for it.

The only down note here is that there is only one extra — cast interviews — included on this DVD release. (Even the additional making-of short — which includes some great alleyway exteriors — that can be found on the PBS website would be a welcome addition.)

Some might argue that the series might be a sort of ghetto tourism-lite that visits the underprivileged world, but ties it up in a pretty, hour-long package that's little more than a buffet experience. No matter; the series makes and defines its own world, on its own terms, no apologies required.

Unfortunately, Worth passed away in 2011, just months before filming began. Her own words, delivered in voice-over by Vanessa Redgrave as Jenny's aged and elderly voice, bring great context and poetry to her subject.

In the epilogue of Episode Six, elder Jenny remembers, "In the East End I've found grace and faith and hope, hidden in the darkest corners. I've found tenderness in squalor, and laughter amid filth. I've found purpose and a path. And I've worked with a passion for the best reason of all — I did it for love."

If there ever was TV Worth Watching, this is it.

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