Call the Midwife is back for its fifth season – and it’s now set in 1961, so we can expect some of the changing attitudes within society start to seep into the drama.
The show immediately has a more modern feel in this premiere episode, with a little bit of Mad Men’s style to the costuming and the feeling of possibility and progression obvious within the presentation of the younger characters.
This becomes clear very quickly, as we see right away how Trixie has found that throwing herself into new fitness classes has helped her overcome her alcoholism and how all the younger midwives at Nonnatus House are excited about a uniform change for the first time in many years. But not all change is for the better, as in this episode we see the effects of the new drug Thalidomide, which was used to ease morning sickness but found to cause deformities in babies born to mothers who had used it.
Here, a child is born with malformed limbs and we see the harsh views of those closest to her as the baby’s father calls her a monster and refuses to have her brought back to his home. While the child’s mother is able to love her no matter what, the circumstances of her birth make for a complex issue that will certainly be explored beyond this episode.
It’s unusual for an instalment of this show to have such singular focus on one topic but this plot does dominate in a way that makes it clear how important it will be to the overall season.
Whether the child should be allowed to live and suffer is an issue that divides many of the characters, and builds to an emotional moment when Dr Turner concedes that “she wants to live”, recognising how she’s fighting to stay alive. This moving story is tinged with sadness as much as it is a powerful statement on the strength a family can have.
The reminder from the child’s mother to her husband to value “what we’ve got, not what we’ve not got” is a strong moment too, and this plotline ends on a bittersweet note by acknowledging how much difficulty this child might experience as she grows, and how much resilience she and those around her will need to have.
Meanwhile, the episode also returns to the relationship between Patsy and Delia, almost seemingly destroying all hope of them being reunited as Delia’s mother summons her back to Wales now that she’s been able to recover and find work at a hospital again.
Those fears are extinguished by the episode’s end, though, as Delia is offered a place to stay at Nonnatus and there’s nothing her mother can do to protest. There’s certainly more drama to come here – and it’s almost a little predictable that these two will probably be discovered canoodling by one of their housemates at some point!
Another theme for this new season would appear to be the clashing attitudes between the older and younger midwives, shown here in a confrontation between Trixie and Sister Julienne that is ostensibly about values but is essentially a chance for the nun to criticise Trixie’s exercise outfit and how a photo of her wearing it is in the newspaper.
Trixie’s passionate argument on the need for change and different approaches is highly convincing and well performed by Helen George, who got a lot of the more serious material last year.
It’s unlikely this is the last we’ve seen of uneasy feelings about what is changing in the world during the ‘60s, though, and it’ll be interesting to see if those who are more stuck in their ways are less easily swayed next time.
Aired at 8pm on Sunday 17 January 2016 on BBC One.
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