“What I saw as a calling, perhaps it was only a dreadful mishearing.”
Not ordinary language on television, at all. But “Call the Midwife” is not ordinary television. Rather, words like profound, tender, and unusual come to mind in trying to describe what has been surprisingly imagined in this BBC series.
How often have you seen television where transcendence and truthfulness are twined together? Again last night, as Meg and I finished watching an episode from the second season, I could only say, “It was profound.” Please don’t think that means highbrow, or philosophical in an abstract sense. Instead its understanding of human beings is remarkably true, but told with a rare grace. And as I have learned from Walker Percy, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” That is of course true for films, for music, and for television too.
Set in the East End of London in the late 1950s, the neighborhood of docks and dockworkers, of ships and sailors, the Nonnatus House offers midwifery service to the host of women who need help bringing their babies into being. The Anglican nuns eat together, play together, work together, and worship together, weaving a tapestry of very ordinary life among very ordinary people. And into their common life a group of midwives join in, apprenticing themselves to the wise and good, aging and sometimes cranky sisters of charity who have given their lives to the needs of the world.
Desperate husbands call out, women with bursting bellies cry out, and tiny babies eventually join the chorus. Sometimes the stories are of the deepest gladness, and sometimes the most heart-wrenching sorrow– as it is in the world that is ours. And then, surprise of surprises, we begin to hear the nuns singing the doxology, threading their confession of the meaning of the universe into one more day at the Nonnatus House, full of glories and ruins as all days are.
Profound? Tender? Unusual? Television that offers windows into vocation? Dialogue that wrestles with calling? Stories where people laugh and cry about things that matter? Where humility bumps up against arrogance, as it does in every human heart? Gracing the beginning and ending of each episode are commentaries by the author of the book that inspired the series—read by Vanessa Redgrave –and are worth the price of admission, offering rare wisdom about life and its labors, especially the labors which demand that we call the midwives.
Good books do tell the truth about the human condition, and when we find stories like that, we see more deeply into who we are and why we are. That is the good gift of the best art, always and everywhere.