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Why aren’t more men watching Call the Midwife?

PUBLISHED: 14:35 28 January 2018 | UPDATED: 22:26 28 January 2018

The seventh series of Call the Midwife continues tomorrow. Here we see Lucille (Leonie Elliot), Valerie Dyer (Jennifer Kirby), Trixie Franklin (Helen George) and Barbara Hereward (Charlotte Ritchie). Picture: BBC/Neal Street Productions/Nicky Johnston

The seventh series of Call the Midwife continues tomorrow. Here we see Lucille (Leonie Elliot), Valerie Dyer (Jennifer Kirby), Trixie Franklin (Helen George) and Barbara Hereward (Charlotte Ritchie). Picture: BBC/Neal Street Productions/Nicky Johnston

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Is the BBC’s Sunday-night treat really ‘essentially a women’s show’?

Jennifer Worth: The nurse and midwife who enjoyed childhood holidays at Clacton-on-Sea and whose life inspired the hit BBC TV series. Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVEJennifer Worth: The nurse and midwife who enjoyed childhood holidays at Clacton-on-Sea and whose life inspired the hit BBC TV series. Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

My name’s Steve and I’m a Call the Midwife-aholic. Steven Russell wonders why many Y-chromosomers don’t seem to watch the BBC Sunday night drama, and author Iain Maitland gives his take

First it was a friend, then a colleague, and finally an acquaintance. They asked, basically, the same question: “What?! You watch Call the Midwife?” More of a statement, really, and an incredulous one at that.

Maybe it’s the circles in which I move – though they’re not all beer-swilling, football-addicted, Jeremy Clarkson-worshipping fellows, not by a long chalk – but I do seem to be a minority among males.

Maybe it’s age. Fifty-five and counting. Twenty-eighteen is going down as The Year of the Rapidly-receding Hairline and Becoming (without resistance) ITV3 Target Audience.

I didn’t watch all these shows at their peak – too busy building what I might laughingly now describe as a career, reading to children and doing their homework – but repeats of Inspector Morse, Foyle’s War, Lewis and particularly Midsomer Murders (and isn’t Neil Dudgeon miles better than John Nettles?) I find strangely comforting.

In the August bank holiday Monday of my life I’m even looking wistfully at the ads for cruises and tippy-back chairs.

I started watching Call the Midwife when I wrote about a book by the sister of Jennifer Worth, the woman whose 
memoirs inspired the TV series. Jennifer was born at Clacton-on-Sea and spent childhood holidays there.

Jennifer Worth's influential bookJennifer Worth's influential book

Is CTM’s narcotic hook its cosy nostalgia? It certainly portrays a more basic, less materialistic, lifestyle that’s appealing, and there is a strong vein of selfless service and community cohesion. At times you almost expect Dick Van Dyke to pop up with a cheery cod-cockney singalong. But I think it’s down to the basics that make or break any good TV, film or radio drama: intelligent stories and well-drawn characters.

Yes, I’ve wanted to hurl a copy of the Radio Times at the TV (such as when the “long dead” and cold and non-breathing baby came back to life in the Christmas episode), it is a bit sacchariney at times, Dr Turner and ex-nun-wife Shelagh are wetter than the Thames, and Miranda Hart’s now-gone character was beyond parody, but it does tug at the heartstrings and it’s a good job my wife and I invariably watch with the lights dimmed, for there’s often a speck of dust irritating my eye and making it water, if you get my drift.

What’s good: Incredibly-moving episodes about thalidomide babies and children with Down’s Syndrome; the death of blunt-speaking but funny and kind Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), who expired quietly and alone in a chair after a second stroke; Sister Monica Joan’s dignified and supported slide into dementia.

Yes, there’s a fair bit of panting, some blood and cries, death and disappointment, but really it’s about people doing their very best for each other, no strings attached. And that’s something that ought to appeal to men as much as women, isn’t it?

The 7th series of Call the Midwife continues on BBC One tonight (Sunday, January 28) at 8pm.

What do you think of the programme? Let me know: steve.russell@archant.co.uk and Steven Russell, Features department, Portman House, 120 Princes Street, Ipswich, IP1 1RS.

Suffolk author Iain Maitland is also a fan. Big-time.

Jennifer Worth in her nursing days. Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVEJennifer Worth in her nursing days. Picture: ARCHANT ARCHIVE

“I’ve watched Call The Midwife from the first episode and have most of the DVDs too. I started watching it with my wife Tracey and we pretty much see every episode as it goes out, or soon after. We always record it.”

First impressions?

“I thought it was going to be a cosy, nostalgia-driven show, a little bit like Heartbeat, perfect for Sunday evenings…”

And..?

“…but it’s actually very clever in that it mixes stories of warmth and gentle humour with some hard-hitting ones, including domestic violence, incest, rape and the thalidomide tragedy.”

And overall?

“I think it works very well because you have a mix of characters who are likeable and sometimes quirky, with both drama and humour in there.

“Some people say it’s twee and it is presented in that way, what with nuns and midwives and that old-fashioned sense of community, but I think that’s the basis that allows them to deal with such heavy-duty topics.”

Iain Maitland.  'I like the humour and the crustier characters, such as Nurse Crane, played by Linda Bassett, and, before her, Sister Evangelina played by Pam Ferris. They have a good spread of characters.' Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNIain Maitland. 'I like the humour and the crustier characters, such as Nurse Crane, played by Linda Bassett, and, before her, Sister Evangelina played by Pam Ferris. They have a good spread of characters.' Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

What do you like best?

“I grew up in London in the ’60s, so there are nostalgic elements that are nice – Nurse Crane has the same type of car, a Morris Minor, as my mum drove then.

“I like the humour and the crustier characters, such as Nurse Crane, played by Linda Bassett, and, before her, Sister Evangelina played by Pam Ferris. They have a good spread of characters.

“I think they handle mental health matters very well. The dementia of Sister Monica Joan, played by Judy Parfitt, and the consequences of the sexual assault on Cynthia Miller, played by Bryony Hannah, have been spot-on.”

Anything not to like?

“Well, I soon learned not to watch Call The Midwife with my evening meal on a tray on my lap. I’ve three children and was at each of the births but I stayed up top every time. Beautiful as childbirth may be, I don’t want grunting and gore when I’m having my dinner.

“I don’t like the Dr Turner family at all; they’re all too goody-goody for my liking. We call them the ‘creepy family’ in our house. If you put them in a horror movie, you’d know there would be bodies under the floorboards.

“Sometimes, the stories can be a wee bit heavy-handed and obvious, you know where they are going and that you are expected to cry at the end. The Christmas 2017 programme, where the still-birth baby came back to life some time later, is a good example. In saying that, I do often have to turn away with a tear in my eye.”

What about this “few men watching” theory?

“I think it’s essentially a women’s show. Many of the stories are about strong and empowering women and some of the men, such as handyman Fred and that new policeman, tend to be portrayed as slow and half-witted. It’s the women who save the day: as women usually do, to be fair.

“I suspect, like me, those men who watch it are doing so because their wives or partners want to watch it. But I do enjoy it, secretly perhaps, and the writing is generally really good. Heidi Thomas has the ability to write both humour and drama side-by-side.”

Do you think the show will run its course? They’re now in 1963. Push close to the 1970s and it will feel very different, surely.

“I think they’ve commissioned it for another two or three series, which would take them up to about 1966 and that might be a good place to end it, just after the World Cup win.

“Then again, it would be quite fun to see the ‘flower power’ years of 1967 and 1968 and the effects they would have on the nuns and nurses.

“I’d find it hard to see it working in the 1970s, a grimmer time in many ways. It’s so firmly set in the 1960s that it’s hard to see it moving into the different world of the next decade.”

Iain’s books include real-life accounts Dear Michael, Love Dad; Out of the Madhouse: An Insider’s Guide to Managing Depression & Anxiety; and thriller Sweet William. www.iainmaitland.net

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