Posted By The Sugar Girls ~ 19th February 2012
Tonight’s Call The Midwife will be the final installment in the current series – and after only six episodes, it has become a weekly fixture that will be much missed. The BBC have confirmed a second series is in the pipeline, but how will we all cope in the meantime?
For us, watching Jennifer Worth’s gripping true-life stories come to life on screen has been particularly exciting. Her trilogy of memoirs about her time as a midwife in the East End was our inspiration in writing The Sugar Girls. Our aim was to capture a lost way of life, just as Jennifer Worth had done – in her case, that of poor expectant mothers and their families in 1950s Poplar, in ours the lives of factory workers a little further down the river in Silvertown. Call The Midwife was our touchstone as we wrote – and we kept a chapter of it pinned up on the wall at all times for inspiration.
We first heard that the BBC were producing a TV version from an actor friend, Robin Browne, who had been called to audition for a role in it. We were incredibly excited, although at the same time nervous about how the adaption would pan out. Would they capture the heart-stopping drama of the books, which are very upsetting and hard to read in places (not to mention pretty gory!) or would the stories end up being watered down for a cosy Sunday night audience?
When Robin revealed that he had got the part – you can see him in tonight’s episode as the Judge trying Sister Monica Joan for theft – we were anxious to hear all that he could tell us about the production. ‘Top quality British drama,’ was his unambiguous verdict – and from what he had seen on set he confidently predicted that the show would be a hit.
Tuning in to the first episode five weeks ago was a slightly uncanny experience – the adaptation felt so true to the books that there was an odd sort of déjà vu in watching it. It soon became clear, though, that Heidi Thomas – the screenwriter behind such previous hits as Cranford and the recent revival of Upstairs Downstairs – had pulled off an incredible feat. Not only had she captured the world of the books so exactly, but she had managed to marry up the two halves of the stories – the grim, gritty world of the poor East Enders, with the blood and gore of so many terrifying birthing scenes, and the lighter, more comedic world of Nonnatus House, where the eccentric band of nuns and nurses have their own escapades. Much as we loved Jennifer Worth’s memoirs, it always felt like they were alternating back and forth between one story of nail-biting drama, and another of light comedy. But somehow, the BBC adaptation makes the two feel interrelated, bridging the gap between the two halves of the story, and allowing the viewer to care as much for the nuns and nurses as they do for the mothers.
Not only that, but by playing up elements only hinted at in the books, the writers have fleshed out Worth’s own character, Jenny Lee. Although Jennifer Worth herself died just before filming began on the series, she had been in close contact with the Heidi Thomas – who promised her, for example, that she would always script Vanessa Redgrave’s heartbreaking authorial voiceovers herself – so presumably some of the extra details were sanctioned by the original author, and even based on things that happened in reality.
Elsewhere, the writers have made changes for dramatic reasons, and with powerful results – such as the scene in which Jenny tracks down the poor prostitute Mary, whose baby had been taken away from her in a previous episode, and who had resorted to stealing someone else’s bby as a result. In the book of Call The Midwife, this is presented almost as an aside – something Jennifer Worth found out about later in life – but the TV adaptation dramatizes it fully, with Jenny and Mary face to face as the baby is discovered.
Of course, despite its astonishingly high viewing figures, Call The Midwife does have a few detractors. In fact some of the former factory workers who we interviewed for The Sugar Girls were quite unhappy about the way the East End of the 1950s is represented in the show. Although the people in their neighbourhoods were poor, they told us, the strong sense of community and neighbourly goodwill in those days prevented anyone from really going under – and yet the drama of the TV show rests in part on families struggling to find the means to live, to eat and to clothe themselves, and living in desperate circumstances.
Some readers also objected to Jennifer Worth’s original books – feeling that as a ‘posh’ outsider merely visiting the East End, she never quite embraced her patients as equals, as much as she obviously felt pity for them. The TV adaption has brilliantly dramatized the struggle the young girl feels at dealing with one patient’s squalid living conditions – and her desire, despite her natural kindness, to get as far away from him as possible.
Perhaps it is true that both the books and, by extension, the adaptation offer a somewhat sensational glimpse of the worst aspects of life in 1950s Poplar, rather than showing the balanced whole. The stories that Jennifer Worth recorded in her memoirs are so heart-stopping, so gripping and tragic and yet at the same time so life-affirming, that perhaps we need to remind ourselves that she is recalling the most shocking or dramatic examples of her time as a midwife, rather than the mundane and everyday cases when everything went according to plan.
And what incredible stories they are. Watching them play out week after week, millions of people across the nation are reaching for their tissues. And the saddest thing of all is when we recall that these are not just scenarios dreamed up by a writer with her finger on our heartstrings, but true stories based on the account of someone who was actually there. With this in mind, some of the most moving tales are more than just upsetting – they are almost unbearable. But it is a testament to the skill of Heidi Thomas and the other writers – as well as to the excellent cast of actors, and everyone else involved – that the show manages to be not just a tear-jerker but uplifting as well. Out of true events more grim and miserable than one would expect to see on a cosy Sunday night in front of the TV, they have conjured something truly remarkable – and it’s hard to see how we’ll manage without it throughout the long wait for the next series to arrive.
* Call the Midwife is now available to pre-order on DVD. *