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Review: Call The Midwife
Summary: Based on the best-selling memoirs of Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife is the Beeb's latest weapon in the battle to win that most easily pleased of viewers: the Sunday evening period drama seeker.
Think I'm kidding? Call the Midwife's opening episode scooped eight million viewers earlier this month. That's even more than ITV1's Downton Abbey pulled in for its heavily promoted 2009 premiere.
The serial has been adapted for TV by Heidi Thomas of Cranford and Upstairs Downstairs fame, which should give you some idea of what to expect: threadbare housewives scrapping in the street, scruffy urchins playing hopscotch and washing lines strewn across cobbled back-alleys.
It stars newcomer Jessica Raine as wet-behind-the-ears midwife Jenny Lee, and an all-star cast of wimple-clad women including Miranda Hart, Jenny Agutter, Pam Ferris and Judy Parfitt. Further evidence of the show's pedigree comes courtesy of narrator Vanessa Redgrave, who plays the elderly Nurse Jenny.
Heck, even Minty from EastEnders (Cliff Parisi) puts in an - albeit largely pointless - appearance as Nonnatus House caretaker Fred.
Say what you like about Miranda Hart: she certainly knows how to fall off a bike convincingly. Like Del Boy falling through a bar, but funny.
I'm not sure doolally Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt)'s toy Golliwog was entirely necessary for adding realism to proceedings. We get it - it's the 1950s.
"You will wince," explained Jessica Raine in a recent interview, a reference to the Casualty-like levels of squeamishness in Call the Midwife.
"Casualty-like levels of squeamishness in Call the Midwife"
She's not wrong either. I mean, I'm no wimp when it comes to pain, or the portrayal of pain, but Call the Midwife is in a league of its own, taking its cue from Channel 4's One Born Every Minute, no doubt.
Just two episodes down and we've already been exposed to - deep breath - eye-wateringly grim medical equipment (glass enema anyone?); a syphilitic chancre; breast abscesses; several women bellowing like harried bulls during labour; and at least one breach birth. Wince? I could barely look.
Life imitating Hart
Episode two heralded the arrival of physically - and socially - awkward nurse Camilla Fortescue Cholomondely-Browne, better known to her friends as 'Chummy' and better known to the rest of us as comedian Miranda Hart.
Before her death, author Jennifer Worth herself hand-picked Hart for the role. Why? Here's how she described Chummy in the books: "Six foot two inches tall, with shoulders like a front-row forward and size eleven feet."
Remind you of anyone?
Physical aptitude for the role aside, the question is: can Miranda do drama? In truth, Ms Hart does all of the following very well indeed: upper-class social ineptitude, calamity proneness and slapstick humour.
Unsurprisingly, her debut appearance of Call the Midwife includes all three - and then some. There's the moment she fails to understand why the local East End off-licence has never heard of Glenlivet whisky. Then there's the medical trolley sent tumbling by her awkward frame.
In order to prove her unapologetic upper-class credentials, Chummy also employs phrases such as "botheration", "tickety-boo", "peely-wally", and "bravo". Then, of course, there are several instances of her falling off a bicycle.
So far, so Miranda. Well, I suppose one should play to one's strengths.
"Miranda Hart is quite probably a perfect choice for the role"
The problem for me was getting past the nagging feeling that this is the same Miranda we see in the BBC sitcom that shares her name.
In other words, a mere exaggeration of Miranda Hart herself, this time in an ill-fitting nurse's tunic.
However, if you can get past all that (I couldn't), Miranda Hart is quite probably a perfect choice for the role; not quite bad enough to make you wince, nor good enough to trouble this year's Bafta judges.
Midwives rule the ratings
Call The Midwife relies somewhat too heavily on its stellar cast and eye-popping visceral nastiness. But even the effect of innumerable rectal probes, painful births and - yes, the presence of Jenny Agutter - soon wears off, leaving behind the bare threads of what is actually just a pretty bog-standard, cosy Sunday night drama.
The viewing public certainly like it; Call The Midwife actually added viewers in its second week, pulling in almost nine million viewers.
A huge endorsement for a show that manages - intentionally or otherwise - to turn prostitution, syphilis and unwanted pregnancies into undemanding Sunday evening telly. A bit like Heartbeat, but with added chimney sweeps and big-hearted cock-er-nee housewives.
- A ratings success for the Beeb, but hardly groundbreaking TV, Call the Midwife earns itself a standard three afterbirth bespattered stars out of five.
TV quotes of the week
"We don't need an extra pair of hands, we need an octopus." - Alas Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) gets Miranda Hart instead.
"My pa used to say 'long dogs need short names'." - Miranda Hart as Chummy, featuring lines about as funny as, well, a glass enema.
"Bravo Betty - your baby's bottom is now delivered." - Chummy deals with a somewhat graphic breach birth.
"Have you thought of French knots to make that jolly fellow's hair?" - That 'jolly fellow' just happens to be a Golliwog. Saints preserve us.
"That's a poke in the eye for Adolf." - One pregnant housewife congratulates another on bagging a new husband after losing her first in the Blitz. Tasteful.
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