“Call the Midwife,” the medical and social drama about the Poplar neighborhood of London and the young midwives who worked with nuns there in the 1950s, occupies a large and cozy chamber of my heart. Heidi Thomas, who created the show for BBC (it now airs on PBS on Sundays), has managed to balance sweet depictions of female friendship and burgeoning romances with an exceptionally tough approach to medicine, advances in public health and the many ways poverty exacts costs on people who experience it. But for all I wish more television creators would take some pages from Thomas’s scripts, the most recent episode of the show called attention to an area that could use some of the same tough treatment she has brought to other areas of the show: race.
This is the second time “Call the Midwife” has had an episode about a married white woman who turns out to be pregnant by a black man not her husband. In the first season, an older woman, who had married a significantly older man, turned out pregnant. When their mixed-race child was born, the man decided to raise the boy as his own without a word about his appearance and the implications of it. In this episode, the story ended less happily. The midwives had planned to help the expectant mother give birth outside London to conceal the race of her child from her husband, but her early labor thwarted their plans. Her husband’s anger made her difficult decision to give up the child for adoption even more hurtful.
“Call the Midwife” is perfectly capable of dealing with both the social context of Poplar in particular and the changing demographics of London more broadly. In its second season, Harriet Warner wrote a smart and sensitive episode of the show about a Jamaican immigrant’s experience with her white neighbors.
So it feels a bit strange that “Call the Midwife” has gone to the same narrative well twice, without addressing the experiences of the black Londoners whose children are, respectively, being raised by another man and another family entirely. We never see these men on screen. We do not know if they are Jamaican or African immigrants, or descendants of London’s long-established black communities. “Call the Midwife” does not explore how these couples met and what drew them together, however briefly. In neither case does the white women consider whether their lovers ought to have a say in what happens to their children. All that matters is their husbands’ reactions, and the episodes end when the families have resolved how they will raise — or not raise — these children.
Given that the Notting Hill race riots of 1958
were just a few years in the future were in the immediate past of this season of “Call the Midwife,” it seems like there might be more of this sort of story to tell. That convulsion was sparked, at least in part, by a domestic story that could have been rich fodder for a show like “Call the Midwife”: Majbritt Morrison, a Swedish woman married to a Jamaican man, Ray Morrison, was caught arguing with him outside a Tube station. A crowd of white men tried to defend her in circumstances where she needed no defending — later, she was attacked.
“Call the Midwife” has done an excellent job of explaining how policy and social conditions play out in the domestic lives of many of its characters. In future episodes, it could do well to apply that same rigor and empathy for its characters to the stories it tells about race.