Call the Midwife: Season One Blu-ray delivers great video and solid audio in this excellent Blu-ray release
Stories from the memoirs of a midwife and nurse who worked in the East End of London in the 1950s.
For more about Call the Midwife: Season One and the Call the Midwife: Season One Blu-ray release, see Call the Midwife: Season One Blu-ray Review published by Michael Reuben on December 27, 2012 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Call the Midwife is a textbook example of how smart casting and sharp writing can transform an
unlikely subject into addictive television. Pregnancy and birth (and their complications),
especially in deprived circumstances, hardly sound like an occasion for entertainment, but this
BBC series has made believers out of fans in both the U.K. and America.
The series is a dramatization of a bestselling memoir of the same name by Jennifer Worth, who
worked as a midwife and nurse in London's East End in the 1950s. Worth published her book in
2002, after reading an article in a professional journal urging a midwife to come forward and fill
a gap in popular literature, because the midwife's role in public health had never been told. By
this point, Worth had been retired from nursing for almost thirty years, having embarked on a
second career as a successful musician. Writing became her third career. Call the Midwife was
followed by two further volumes about Worth's experiences in midwifery, plus an additional
book about her work with terminally ill patients. Worth consulted on the BBC adaptation of her
stories, but died just two weeks before filming began.
The East End in the 1950s was grim territory. The region had suffered such battering from the
Nazi blitz that, after German bombs landed in a courtyard at Buckingham Palace, Queen
Elizabeth, the current queen's mother, famously said: "I am glad we have been bombed. It makes
me feel we can look the East End in the face." Reconstruction focused on more prosperous parts
of London, leaving the East End in rubble for years after the war's end. Poverty and
unemployment were high, and much of the housing was barely habitable. Although the National
Health Service was established shortly after the war, it was still in its infancy, and doctors did not
flock to poor neighborhoods. Residents had to seek health care from charitable organizations like
the facility attached to an Anglican nunnery that Worth called "Nonnatus House" in her book. (In
real life, it was the Sisters of St John the Divine.) There it was that a highly trained but otherwise
naive young woman reported one morning for her first day of work.
Each of the six episodes in Season One of Call the Midwife opens and closes with narration by
the elder Jennifer Worth (speaking in the voice of Vanessa Redgrave) introducing characters and
providing perspective. This retrospective device is essential to the series, a constant reminder that
the young Jennifer we follow through the events of the series (Jessica Raine) survives her
adventures with grace and dignity, as do most of the people she encounters. In a series that often
ventures into dark subject matter, this narrative strategy is a critical counterbalance.
The first episode opens in 1957 with the young Jenny Lee (Worth's maiden name) striding
purposefully through the crowded streets of the East End's Poplar district, lugging her suitcase.
As she approaches Nonnatus House, Jenny is halted by a crowd that has formed around two
women, one of them pregnant, in a no-holds-barred fistfight over a man, presumably the child's
father. After the cops break up the fight, a tough fireplug of a nun, Sister Evangelina (the
wonderful Pam Ferris), steps out of the door and asks which of the two floozies, both worse for
wear, is her patient.
Jenny's welcome to the East End is the first of many eye-openers for this sheltered middle class
girl. Both within the surrounding environs and inside the walls of Nonnatus House, she
encounters one circumstance after another that introduce her to people she never knew existed,
expand her experience of the world and deepen her appreciation of the courage required to affirm
life in the face of hardship. First, though, she has to be outfitted with a midwife's medical kit and
be assigned a bicycle, an essential mode of transport here, because the streets are narrow,
twisting and frequently obstructed by debris, children playing, market traders and people from
Each hour-long episode is woven of several intertwining stories, at least one of which focuses on
the residents of Nonnatus House. Jenny's fellow civilian midwives include Trixie Franklin
(Helen George), whose Marilyn Monroe platinum blonde hair bespeaks a similarly flirtatious
approach toward men; in her work, however, she is utterly serious. Cynthia Miller (Bryony
Hannah) is Trixie's opposite number on the surface: plain, sober and serious. Underneath,
though, they are both driven by the same odd mix of practicality and idealism that makes Cynthia
request to be assigned to attend a dying patient and her spouse, because she thinks she can be of
use. (She is.)
The fourth member of the civilian quartet is the memorable Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne, or "Chummy" as she's called. In Worth's book,
she was unusually tall, and she's played
by Miranda Hart, who is 6' 1" and best known as a comic actress. Chummy is even more a fish
out of water at Nonnatus House than Jenny Lee. Upper class, with a titled mother, she's had a
privileged upbringing, but her size and awkwardness have caused her family to write off her
marriage prospects. However, missionary work in Africa is considered respectable, and a stint as
a midwife in the East End is solid preparation. Chummy's distinctive combination of sheltered
past and gung-ho determination and her endearing clumsiness—her struggles to learn bike-riding
are a key plot point—have made her a popular character. Hart's performance is a masterpiece of
understatement in a role that could easily have been milked for comedy.
On the religious side, we have the aforementioned Sister Evangelina, who fits neatly into the
tradition of characters whose bark is worse than their bite. One of the season's high points is
when she erupts with impatience over one of the civilian nurses and a gentleman admirer who
have been shyly circling each other for days and literally forces them to make a date (in front of
everyone at Nonnatus House). A similarly practical disposition is evident in Sister Julienne
(Jenny Agutter), the head of the institution, but it is accompanied by a steely reserve that both
intimidates and commands respect. Jenny Lee is repeatedly surprised, even shocked, however, to
discover deep wells of compassion and understanding hidden behind Sister Julienne's formal
The bespectacled Sister Bernadette (Laura Main) is young, obedient and well-behaved. Nonnatus
House needs someone of that disposition to balance out its most colorful inhabitant, Sister
Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt). Formerly a distinguished midwife and now retired, Sister Monica
Joan hovers somewhere between a ward of Nonnatus House and its resident sage. No one can
decide whether she suffers from dementia or has simply reached the point in life where she no
longer cares about social norms. Whatever the reason, she says what she wants and disappears
into her own world when called to account. She often functions in the story as a Greek chorus,
but one that may be drunk.
Not all the regular cast is female. The house has a male handyman named Fred (former EastEnders
regular Cliff Parisi), who is always working on a moneymaking scheme. The local constable, PC
Noakes (Ben Caplan), keeps a watchful eye on Nonnatus House. Jenny has a charming admirer
from her former life named Jimmy (George Rainsford), who faithfully tracks her down and
declares his admiration. (The state of Jenny's heart is one of the season's overarching mysteries.)
And Dr. Turner (Stephen McGann), a general practitioner, appears for consulting hours when the
clinic is thronged with expectant mothers, and he remains on permanent call for deliveries and
emergencies. The fact that Dr. Turner is the sole physician available to this entire community
underscores the importance of the services these women provide. Indeed, when their services are
no longer available to one patient due to a forced relocation by a housing agency, the result is the
equivalent of a death sentence.
The patients served by Nonnatus House are diverse. In Season One, they include an Irish teenage
prostitute who is desperate to conceal her pregnancy from her pimp; the Portuguese immigrant
wife of a retired sailor, who has borne him twenty-four children without learning a word of
English (or he a word of Portuguese) and now, on the twenty-fifth, has developed complications;
a newlywed middle class mother who has recently moved to the area, presumably for cheaper
rents, but who is scared away from Nonnatus House by the proletarian chaos of the waiting room;
and, in a case that hits close to home, the ailing brother of the facility's housekeeper. Jenny can't
believe she's met two people who actually grew up in "workhouses" for the poor. She thought
they were "the stuff of Dickens" and is shocked to discover that much of what Dickens described
has continued long after he exposed it.
Call the Midwife was shot digitally. It seems to be the practice with any British TV effort that's
been digitally originated to master it for Blu-ray at 1080i. Both the BBC and Acorn Media do
this, and it's the case here. Since I try not to look at the technical details until after I've watched
the discs, I was not aware of the format while viewing. It was only while freezing the frames for
screencaps that the interlaced format became noticeable. What was most striking about Call the
Midwife as a viewing experience was how beautifully film-like the image was and how artfully
the cinematographer, Chris Seager (currently working on Game of Thrones), suggested a faded,
older era without leeching all the color from the image. (According to IMDb, Seager used the
Arriflex D-21, which is Arri's digital camera designed for motion picture photography. It accepts 35mm
Despite the interlaced format, the image on BBC's AVC-encoded discs is detailed and free of
artifacts (again, while the image is in motion), with a distinctively pale but varied color scheme,
and occasionally vivid colors that stand out in certain scenes when emphasis is needed. Blacks
are deep and solid, contrast is just right for bringing out detail without distorting it, and compression
errors are nowhere to be seen. If not for the absence of any visible grain structure, this could be
an expertly transferred image from film. (Note, however, that the interlacing is visible in freeze
frames and screen captures.)
The series' stereo soundtrack is delivered as PCM 2.0, and it's basic and effective. Dialogue is
clear, unless you have trouble with the various accents, in which case there are optional subtitles.
The charmingly upbeat score by Peter Salem, who has extensive credits in British TV, sets the
right tone for a series that is all about remaining cheerful in the face of overwhelming odds.
Wimpoles, Babies and Bicycles (1080i; 1.78:1; 10:02): In this brief but informative
featurette, the principal cast members are interviewed about their roles and their
participation in the project. Executive producer Pippa Harris also participates. Typical of
the tone is Pam Ferris' wry observation that she loves playing a nun, because she doesn't
have to spend hours in hair and makeup.
Trailers: At startup, each of the two discs plays trailers that can be skipped with the
chapter forward button and are not available once the disc loads. Disc 1 plays trailers for
the new Upstairs, Downstairs, The Hour and
BBC America. Disc 2 plays a trailer for
A recurring debate in the theory of history questions whether history is a succession of major
dates and momentous events or is rather the accretion of millions, even billions, of small daily
actions by individuals that, collectively, constitute humanity moving through time. Call the
Midwife suggests a middle path by focusing on daily life during one of its momentous
occurrences: the arrival of a new person, filled with as-yet-unrealized possibilities. In one sense,
the stories of Jenny and her fellow midwives demystify this process by stripping it of the
antiseptic technological wrapping with which modern medical practice has enveloped it and
returning it to the basics of home birth (without becoming too graphic). But in another sense,
Call the Midwife restores the sense of wonderment that Jenny Worth discovered as a young
woman in the East End, as she witnessed people who should have had no hope bringing children
into the world and carrying them forward into the future, propelled by little more than
stubbornness and love. Highly recommended.
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BBC Home Entertainment has announced that it will release on Blu-ray Call the Midwife: Season One. The 2BD set will include all six episodes (approximately 355 minutes) and will be available for purchase on November 6th.
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