Call the Midwife, adapted from the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, is the BBC’s highest-ever rating drama debut.
Just let that sink in a minute. All those previous classics, knocked into a cocked hat by what might be the fluffiest show ever to not star Rory Kinnear.
I have to confess I missed the first episode because, after all, I am a red-blooded man whose idea of a relaxing Sunday night is a bit of bear baiting followed by a brief football riot rather than, say, watching newly qualified midwives bumbling around 1950s London on bikes.
But I saw the second instalment and I’ve seldom sunk into a warm custard of feelgood whimsy so quickly. All the ingredients are in place: attractive yet naive young women in nurse outfits (to be fair, they are nurses, but I am a red-blooded man etc.), cheery, cheeky cockney housewives and loveable scamps, not to mention Jenny Agutter in a wimple (that one for our older, but still red-blooded, readers) as Sister Evangelina.
Basically, it’s a mashup of Oliver Twist, The Sound of Music and One Born Every Minute.
And it’s awesome, in a qualified and unchallenging way: silly and funny and gentle and emotional and OMG BABIES. And Miranda Hart on a bike! She’s awkward! And posh! Such fun.
Poor woman, she’s going to be stuck with that one for the rest of her career.
The nurses follow a familiar formula. Dowdy Spice (Cynthia, mousey but with a firm spirit), Forward Spice (platinum blonde Trixie, perhaps a wee bit flighty), Chummy (Miranda giving us an accurately monikered Posh Spice for a change) and Jenny, Everygirl Spice who narrates from BEYOND THE GRAAAAAVE – er, from the present day when she’s turned into Vanessa Redgrave.
I want to be Vanessa Redgrave when I grow up.
The nuns, whose convent hosts the girls and keeps them Sunday-night-appropriate, are also rather more physically and morally spry than we might have expected. For Jenny Agutter, this isn’t a surprise, but in tonight’s episode, shrinking violet Sister Bernadette is wracked with longing as the girls all go out with their young men to dance to rock ‘n’ roll (Trixie has already seen Elvis Presley, of course).
Perhaps she’ll be defrocked? *makes Frankie Howerd face*
We also had our first death. Our first two deaths, as neither mother nor baby made it. I’d been waiting anxiously for this – how could they avoid it, given the subject matter? Unfortunately it was a bit of a miss: understated in a way that didn’t really do justice to the desolation and trauma inherent in the situation. But that’s pre-watershed TV for you, folks.
That said, it was moving and did help the plot progress: mousey Cynthia has been a tad anonymous to date, so perhaps being at the centre of tragedy will be the making of her.
She’s not allowed any romance – not yet, anyway, which is a shame as it’s coming more and more to the fore: Jenny has a nice young man, Trixie has a host of unsuitable rogues (I assume), and Chummy, whose character is painfully sexless even for comic relief, has met a nice policeman after running him down on her bike.
There’s that word “nice” again – I promise you, I’m editing it out more often than not but it simply couldn’t be more apt for this series. If the programme were a cake, it’d be a lovely, straightforward bit of Victoria sponge rather than a fancy confection dripping fudge sauce and covered in edible glitter.
Also, despite the programme being set in the 1950s, it seems completely now, tapping the recession-spawned desire for escapism and nostalgia. The stories themselves are successfully stand-alone but with a continuous thread. This week’s storyline involves a young working girl from an earlier episode: she’d had her baby taken away, so she’d stolen a new one.
It was simple but effective. Which pretty much sums up the show.
Call the Midwife is on Sunday nights, BBC1 at 8pm. You can catch up on iPlayer here.