When Fact Meets Fiction
Amy Neal | Birkbeck, University of London
Can dramas like Call the Midwife radically reshape how people engage with and understand the past?
The period drama is no longer simply a cosy Sunday night comfort that reaffirms, and repeats, established historical events. An innovative form of storytelling, it now brings opportunities to change how we view, think, and talk about the past. A compelling and accessible way to re-examine the past in the present, it offers the radical potential to challenge traditional assumptions by fictionalising historical facts. Its power lies in its potential to reclaim marginalised histories such as those of race, gender, and disability, by offering a visual representation of these missing or ignored narratives.
Call the Midwife, BBC’s Sunday night guilty pleasure, has a secret radicalism at its core.On the surface it appears to be the traditional and conservative British period drama, with nuns, nurses, and the East End, rather than ballgowns, drawing rooms and debutantes. You might dismiss Call the Midwife as twee and nostalgic, judging it to have no historical value, but you do so at your peril.
Screened in over 235 territories worldwide,this popular long-running series has become a phenomenon, inviting serious analysis and reflection on its historical and cultural significance. The show is based on the personal history and memoirs of Jennifer Worth and adapted for television by screenwriter Heidi Thomas. Once the memoirs were exhausted, she widened the lens of the drama and its historical scope by scouring the archives of social history, from Hansard, the official report of all parliamentary debates, to the Health Board for the district of Poplar. Thomas fictionalises the facts to personalise the history, using them as tentpoles onto which to build the stories and actively rewriting forgotten histories back into the narrative of British history. Importantly, Call the Midwife places these missing stories before a mainstream audience, confounding traditional expectations and challenging the viewer’s perception of the past in the process.
Call the Midwife attempts a complex negotiation of meanings for a British period drama. On the one hand, it fulfils its ideological role by using the prism of national identity and history to reexamine our shared national past. On the other, it offers a radically authentic narrative of Britain’s national past. Focusing on social history, it makes space for the stories of those communities that have been historically marginalised, and articulates the emotions associated with these communities by representing them with sensitivity and love. That is not to say that it ignores the big events of British history, rather it juxtaposes them with lesser-known stories highlighting that they are equally significant if not more so, encouraging viewers to question their perception of the nation’s past and interrogate what it means to be British.
Call the Midwife explicitly addresses the issue of race and racism whilst other period dramas actively avoid it. Using the lens of migration and the movement of people, it depicts a diverse range of characters and stories, with storylines covering families who have migrated from across the Commonwealth to the Gypsy traveller community. In series seven the character of Lucille Anderson is introduced, a young Black midwife who has emigrated from Jamaica to support the rapidly expanding National Health Service in the 1960s. Based on the many Caribbean nurses who answered the NHS’s call, she is one of the first black midwives to be depicted in a British period drama. Played by Leonie Elliot, a Black British actor whose family emigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s, her introduction as a main character represents an important first. Call the Midwife actively confronts racism during this period of British history with the depiction of the harsh realities of being a young black woman with agency in a predominantly white society.
The audience response to Lucille’s introduction was extremely positive, with viewers commenting on Twitter that this was an important step for representation. Amanda Rae Prescott, an American freelance entertainment journalist who specialises in tracking UK television primarily through the lens of racial diversity, commented that Lucille’s introduction demonstrated that Call the Midwife was “going to go there and confront racism in a way other period dramas actively avoided”. Call the Midwife subverts the traditional expectations of the British period drama, with storylines that highlight how migration contributes to the nation.
Radicalism is at the core of Call the Midwife, simply by the fact that it centres women’s lives in all their many forms, bucking the trend of exploring women’s history primarily through the lens of royalty and aristocracy. Women are depicted realistically, the lack of realism across drama generally makes Call the Midwife significant. Female solidarity, resistance, and agency are championed, and the act of childbirth is celebrated, scenes of labour and birth punctuate each episode like sex and violence do in other dramas. The women in the stories play active roles in the world they inhabit, they are not defined by their relationship with men. Whilst the act of birth and motherhood is made very visible, Call the Midwife also focuses on women’s vocations, as demonstrated by the midwives and nuns, challenging the assumptions that the ultimate purpose of a woman is to be a wife and mother.
Call the Midwife is written by women, for women, and it is sometimes even directed by women, meaning it engages with topics contemporary to audiences now such as reproductive freedom. Call the Midwife charts the histories of reproductive freedom in the UK and allows viewers to interact with them at an emotional level. Although it implicitly endorses the benefits of birth control and family planning it offers many different viewpoints without judgement or censure.
Call the Midwife has tracked the lack of development and use of contraception and its impact on the women of Poplar. In the first few series, the consequences of women’s lack of access to contraception are explored. Contraception is presented explicitly as part of the history of the liberation of women and their sexual lives but not without its own consequences. The advent of the contraceptive pill in series four is viewed as a “magic potion” by the midwives, however it soon becomes apparent that there are significant limitations on its use, with most single women still unable to access reliable, affordable contraception. Call the Midwife does not shy away from the subject of abortion and uses its format of serialisation to blend historical research with emotional resonance to explore how politics can directly impact women’s lives.
Series eight tells the story of abortion from a radical point of view, that of the women abortionists. In doing so, it challenges the historical perceptions of this figure by reframing their behaviour, which was illegal in the early 1960s, as a response to underlying social problems suggesting social justice through state welfare provision as the solution rather than criminalisation. The history and impact of restricting and denying reproductive freedom to women is personalised, encouraging the viewer to be an active participant in the drama and to critique the narrative in relation to contemporary issues.
Call the Midwife’s historicising of sex and its exploration of reproductive freedoms is actually very topical and has a direct link to the now. Where debates about abortion and reproductive freedoms are still at the heart of political discourses. We may all like to watch period drama, but we don’t want to actually live in one. Call the Midwife reminds people of how central women’s reproductive freedom or lack of it is to contemporary society.
An important thread that runs throughout Call the Midwife is the history of disability. This often invisible and underrepresented history plays a significant role in the stories told. The histories and experiences of disabled people are frequently absent from public spaces where people can engage with the past. By depicting disabled characters and stories in a very popular mainstream television drama, Call the Midwife is actively restoring disabled people to the historical narrative and public consciousness, challenging people’s perceptions of disability in the past and the present. Call the Midwife charts and personalises the history of Down’s syndrome, showing how attitudes and the treatment of those with Down’s syndrome changed in Britain during the 1950s and 60s, reminding viewers how far we have come as a society. In series ten the taboos and stigma associated with the birth of a child with Down’s syndrome in the 1960s is explored. The reaction to this episode on social media was significant, with people taking to Twitter to praise Call the Midwife for its sensitive portrayal of the topic.
Another hidden part of disability history that is explored and exposed is the consequences of Thalidomide, a drug that was marketed as a sedative and treatment for morning sickness in the late 1950s and 60s and caused babies to be born with a range of disabilities including missing and malformed limbs. In series five the history of thalidomide is personalised through the story of Susan Mullucks, a baby who is born with severely deformed arms and legs. As the legacy of Thalidomide is still unfolding now, there was an enormous commitment to accuracy and authenticity. Thomas extensively researched the storyline, basing the character of Susan on Rosaleen Moriarty Simmonds and ensuring the prosthetics depicted were accurate. She spoke to adults who were affected by the drug and hadn’t seen themselves as babies, sharing her works in progress to ensure sensitivity in the portrayal. When these adults watched the episodes, they commented that they were very moved and felt their story had finally been validated. The Thalidomide storyline has played an important role in filling this gap in Britain’s collective memory and perhaps has done so more impactfully than a book or documentary could have.
Call the Midwife actively contributes to the representation of marginalised voices in history and on television. Whilst written primarily by white middle-class women, there is a collaboration with the communities depicted to ensure their stories are told with sensitivity and love. Importantly, these stories are grounded in reality and portrayed by actors who have lived experience of the stories being told. The writers, including Thomas, actively listen to ensure accuracy and more importantly authenticity. Hopefully, in the future this diversity of representation will touch all aspects of the show from writing to production and ultimately become the industry norm for both history and television.
Representation matters, we cannot be a better society until we see it. By depicting underrepresented histories through the prism of national identity dramas like Call the Midwife are offering radical versions of Britishness, complicating the history and revealing national shame as well as triumphs. By embracing and appealing to our innate human desire for storytelling they make these histories relevant and encourage conversations about the very concept of history, and how it is used and viewed through a national lens.
These dramas are a critical form of public history. As historians, we shouldn’t underestimate the power of period drama to educate, inspire historical inquiry, and offer opportunities to make us more aware of our past. Empowering us to re-examine the past in relation to the present in the process.
Period dramas can change the conversation around established historical facts and reach a much wider audience than academic history can, reaching those who would never visit a museum or pick up a history book; making the past relevant to the everyday.Considering that most people now get most of their knowledge of the past via this visual medium, it has never been more important for historians to investigate the way in which period dramas recreate and represent the past.
Jennifer Worth , Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s (London: Merton Books, 2002)
Jerome de Groot, Consuming History: Historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture., 2nd edn (London and New York.: Routledge, 2016)
James Leggott and Julie Anne Taddeo , Upstairs and Downstairs : British Costume Drama Television from The Forsyte Saga to Downton Abbey, (Lanham: MD, 2014)
Natalie Zemon Davis, Slaves on Screen: Film and Historical Vision (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000)
Amy Neal is a recent MA graduate in Public Histories from Birkbeck, University of London with a ten-year background of working in heritage. Her current research interests lie in public history and television, and how period dramas can impact on public understanding and engagement with the past. Her aim is to communicate history in an engaging and accessible way as she believes historical awareness is vital to a healthy functioning democratic society.
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