Why Sweet Soap ‘Call the Midwife’ Is One of the World’s Most Popular Shows
One of TV’s most popular series, with a rabid global fanbase that’s been waiting with bated breath for a new season, is finally returning. There are no high-school soccer players flirting with cannibalism, family members stabbing one another in the back for executive boardroom seats, or Americans spreading their gee-golly charm throughout the locker room of an English soccer team. No, the show we’re referring to is the BBC’s Call the Midwife, the long-running soap opera that returns stateside on PBS this weekend.
In Poplar, a rough East End neighborhood in London, residents face a variety of challenges to maintaining their health. Even in the mid-20th century, the tenements they live in may lack indoor commodes or running water; new immigrants who have yet to learn English may have a hard time articulating their physical pain; fear of judgment from the neighbors who crowd them on all sides may keep them from seeking badly needed treatment.
The scripted drama Call The Midwife follows the nurses and midwives of Nonnatus House as they provide all kinds of care in the district—but, mostly, they deliver Poplar’s babies. You might think there aren’t enough stories about the fairly standard human experience of being born, but you’d be wrong: since the BBC delivered the first season back in 2012, Call The Midwife has become one of the service’s longest-running hits. More than 100 episodes have aired, and last month, it got a blockbuster multi-season renewal, ensuring that it will remain on the air through at least 2026.
With the show’s 12th season arriving Sunday on PBS, we’ve made a list of the top five reasons Call The Midwife is essential viewing for TV lovers.
1. It’s a love letter to the NHS.
In 1948, a post-war Labour government launched Britain’s National Health Service as part of an ambitious package of legislation to expand the welfare state. Broadly speaking, the NHS guarantees health care to every British resident; though there are some exceptions (such as dental and optometric services for adults), this care is provided at no charge to the patient.
At the start of Call The Midwife, the year is 1957, and we join Nonnatus House’s personnel—secular nurse-midwives, in uniform; Anglican nuns, also trained in medicine, in habits—as their district duties have been well established.
In addition to providing a regularly scheduled clinic at a Poplar community center, the nurses’ daily duties find them riding out into Poplar on their bicycles for check-in house calls on patients—mostly pregnant mothers, but also people who might have trouble getting out to a doctor’s office on their own, like seniors and children. Seeing patients in their homes allows the nurses to trace physical (and sometimes mental) issues to environmental causes, and connect their patients to relevant social services.
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This aspect of the nurses’ work is centered even more in Season 12, with the introduction of a new character, Sister Veronica (Rebecca Gethings), whose background is in social work, and who proposes preventative initiatives like a regular clinic for children who have jobs—apparently still a significant and underserved population in 1968, when the season takes place.
The NHS of the 21st century has long been a political flashpoint. During the campaign over the “Brexit” referendum of 2016, the Vote Leave side proposed that the £350 million it claimed the UK sent to the EU each week could be spent on the NHS instead. Unfortunately, this claim was not based in fact. Now, less than a decade later, the NHS is facing doctor shortages because of Brexit, and earlier this week, nurses, junior doctors, and ambulance drivers went on a 72-hour strike; tens of thousands of nurses and ambulance workers had previously walked out in early February over a pay dispute.
The Leave campaign’s fraudulent slogan could not have worked if not for the love and pride Britons rightly feel for the NHS; Call The Midwife works as positive propaganda by reminding viewers that the NHS has helped create close and meaningful relationships between patients and health care providers through multiple generations.
2. It gives topical stories historical context.
The current NHS crisis is just one example of a contemporary concern Call The Midwife has refracted through its mid-century lens.
Over the years, we’ve seen the nurses and nuns grapple with developments that affect them directly in terms of patients’ reproductive health: the creation of the birth control pill, the Thalidomide tragedy, black market abortions, coerced adoptions, and changing attitudes toward home births. But Call The Midwife’s patients also face struggles that continue into our day: circumstances that force people into survival sex work; post-traumatic stress that lingers from military service; substance use issues leading to domestic violence; care being unjustly withheld from pregnant women during incarceration; viral outbreaks of highly communicable diseases, requiring community quarantining.
Anyone who was alive and watching TV in the ’80s and ’90s will have seen countless Very Special Episodes that deal with social issues by way of a guest star parachuting in to teach the opening-credits cast about them, then departing forever. But while Call The Midwife does use the episodic format to let patients of the week educate viewers about specific situations or conditions, it also unfurls long-form storytelling through its regular and recurring cast.
Patsy (Emerald Fennell, now the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Promising Young Woman), a posh and glamorous midwife who has lived abroad with her well-connected family, is also a closeted queer woman, who embarks upon a serious relationship with hospital nurse Delia (Kate Lamb); though Patsy is intensely private and fearful of discovery, she does take a few tentative steps into exploring queer life, even visiting a lesbian bar.
Reggie (Daniel Laurie), a 20-something man with Downs syndrome, becomes the surrogate son to his second cousin Fred (Cliff Parisi), Nonnatus House’s handyman, after Reggie’s mother’s death. Reggie mostly lives in a supportive community for people with intellectual disabilities, but is a beloved fixture when he visits Fred, participating in Poplar events and celebrations when he’s not sending affectionate postcards home to his girlfriend Jane (canonically Poppy Barrett, though the character hasn’t been seen since Barrett died in 2019).
Viewers spend the most time with Lucille (Leonie Elliott), who arrives in Poplar in Season 7. A librarian in her native Jamaica, Lucille responds to a staffing crisis in the NHS by changing careers and becoming a nurse at Nonnatus House. Lucille’s homesickness abates when she joins an evangelical congregation and meets Cyril (Zephryn Taitte), its part-time pastor. They later marry, and tension surrounding the couple’s inability to conceive again following a pregnancy loss in Season 11 is only compounded in Season 12 by racist posturing by Enoch Powell. Feeling unwelcome as an immigrant leads Lucille to make a major life decision; seeing the agony of a beloved character may lead some viewers to revise their own opinions about current immigration discourse in the U.K.
3. It portrays religious characters with dignity.
“Never discuss politics or religion in polite company” is a rule to which people are always trying to add other touchy subjects, like sex or money—but Call The Midwife doesn’t shy away from any of them. And while religious characters in pop culture can tend to be deployed as punchlines or predators, the nuns of Nonnatus House represent a broad range of temperaments and experiences.
We’ve seen a nun—Laura Main’s Shelagh—leave the order to get married and raise a family. We’ve seen a secular nurse—Cynthia, played by Bryony Hannah—take holy orders and commit to a life of religious service. Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) rejected her aristocratic upbringing in favor of the sisterhood; Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) was born and bred in the East End. Sister Francis (Ella Bruccoleri) came to the sisterhood with virtually no life experience; Sisters Mildred (Miriam Margolyes) and Veronica both worked with orphans and refugees overseas.
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The nuns who live in and have passed through Nonnatus House have variously been patient, gentle, gruff, bitter, and open-minded about the unique life experiences of their patients, and judgmental of choices they wouldn’t make themselves. In other words: while they happen to have chosen marriage to God for their lives and work, they are three-dimensional human beings. And when the show portrays characters of other faiths—Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and other Christian sects—it treats their beliefs and traditions with respect, too. Someone tell Rainn Wilson this is the show for him.
4. It underlines the vital importance of being in community.
In the late 2010s, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy started speaking about a “loneliness epidemic” that could, if not addressed, become a public health crisis. He later published a book about it, called Together: The Healing Power Of Human Connection In A Sometimes Lonely World… on April 21, 2020—just in time for all of us to be less Together than we probably ever had been before. The COVID pandemic has only exacerbated the problem of loneliness, with experts calling for a national strategy to combat it.
This can all seem abstract, but when you watch Call The Midwife, you see in blazing color exactly what you may be missing from your own life, if you ever experienced it at all. Yes, Poplar residents’ crowded living conditions can lead to poor hygiene, sometimes spreading disease; yes, they can be close-minded and clannish—if not openly racist—to new arrivals. But there’s such a sense of camaraderie in its group scenes, with interracial friendships growing more commonplace as the series has gone on: We see pregnant mothers laughing and comparing notes at clinic; kids playing together in the streets; neighbors assembling to celebrate weddings or garden shows or children’s holiday pageants.
The Nonnatus House nurses’ and midwives’ home visits are invaluable, but even outside a professional context, the show dramatizes how neighbors serve as an ad hoc social safety net by looking in on one another, sharing scarce resources, and making sure households in crisis are supported with child care or covered dishes.
In one memorable scene in Season 12, Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) must face Dr. Threapwood (Timothy Harker). A bureaucrat from the London Board Of Health, Threapwood bristles at the autonomy Nonnatus House has carved out for itself, thanks in large part to gifts from Matthew Aylward (Olly Rix), an unwitting slum lord turned guilty benefactor. “You are currently only operational because of private charity,” Threapwood tells Sister Julienne. “‘Charity’ is another word for love,” Sister Julienne replies. She should know: Every day, she’s surrounded by acts of charity, big and small, from members of Poplar’s community.
5. It will make you sob.
Any show with a medical focus is going to involve scenes with literal life-and-death stakes. Naturally, deliveries sometimes go wrong, resulting in the death of a mother, or a baby, or both; naturally, those are devastating.
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But the series also does an extraordinarily good job of fleshing out its patients of the week, so that even when a delivery goes right, you will find yourself choking up out of relief that a bad outcome didn’t come to pass, or happiness that a baby has come to parents who feared they would never experience such joy. And when opening-credits cast members, whom you’ve watched through dozens of episodes, have their own tragic challenges or hard-fought triumphs? Forget it. You’ll be a puddle.
Call The Midwife is a big-hearted, eminently humane portrait of the duty we all owe each other… and also a machine built to extract your tears. Give in. You won’t be sorry.
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