I own every season of the British series “Call the Midwife.” This is the TV show based on Jennifer Lee Worth’s memoir about her life as a midwife working in London’s East End slums during the 1950s.
Young Jenny Lee arrives in the poorest part of London in 1957 to work with the midwife nuns from Nonnatus House. The East End of the 1950s still wore the scars of the German bombing raids during the war. It is a war-weary world of tenements and deep poverty, with some families of five, six, seven, or eight people living in a one-bedroom flat. We the viewers are introduced to this world through Jenny Lee. She is our voice and our guide.
After three seasons, Jessica Raine, the actress who played young Jenny Lee left the show. Rather than recast the role with a new actress or fold up the tents and cancel, Call the Midwife carried on without its central character.
It hasn’t entirely worked without Jenny Lee and the quality of the writing often flails about untethered without Worth’s memoir to ground it.
The show has been on the air for eleven seasons. It started great – funny, clever, a marvelous collection of characters. Seasons 1 and 2 are just perfect. Then in Season 3, Raine’s final season on the show, it starts to lose steam.
But I’ve stuck with it. Even as the writing faltered and the characters changed, I still found that each episode had at least one perfect moment that made slogging through the less-than-stellar writing worth it.
Well, Season 11, which premiered in January, was finally available for purchase this past week, and boy, was I in for a surprise.
Clearly, Season 11 was filmed during the height of COVID restrictions in England, so it isn’t as much Call the Midwife as it is Call the Social Distancing Midwife.
[There are probably spoilers here. So if you are eager to see it, you might not want to read on.]
By the end of the 2-part Christmas special that kicks off every new season, I detected something bizarre about Season 11.
This is a show that relies heavily on physical nearness. The characters are always hugging each other or cozying up close. Moving moments are shot with the two or more characters packed in close to each other as they share life’s joys and pains. But not Season 11.
The Christmas special featured the wedding of Midwife Lucille and her fiancé Cyril. The bride and groom stood about four feet apart throughout the ceremony. This social distancing continued into their marriage. Each scene between Lucille and Cyril had them standing arms-length apart, usually with a table between them. Amazingly, Lucille quickly gets pregnant. How Cyril managed to impregnate his wife from four feet away, well, let’s just say, I have a newfound respect for the man.
What newlywed couple never touches? They don’t even kiss each other goodbye when they head out for work. Instead, they stand far apart with their arms outstretched toward each other and their fingers barely touching.
And after Lucille miscarries, the only comfort she gets from Cyril is a long reach across the table to touch her hand.
And that’s the thing. The only time multiple people are visible on screen together is during wide shots where they can all maintain social distancing. Close shots, on the other hand, were a one-person-only affair. Sure, sometimes you’d see a blurry shoulder of a second person in the foreground or an occasional hand would strrrreeeetch out from the corner of the screen to brush the hand of the person in the shot before being quickly whisked away.
But for the most part, even in emotionally-overwrought scenes with just two people, you rarely if ever see more than one person on screen at a time.
That’s true even when they’re delivering babies.
It used to be if two of the midwives were with a mom-to-be, one would take her post at the baby-birthing end while a second midwife would be right there beside the mom-to-be, holding her hand and keeping an arm around her shoulders.
But not in Season 11. The second midwife stands four feet away shouting socially distanced words of encouragement to the mom-to-be. And the midwife stationed at the business end never ever appears in the shot with the mom-to-be whose business end she’s minding.
Seriously, once you notice the social distancing in Season 11, you cannot un-notice it.
By the third episode, I was howling with laughter imagining the director struggling to figure out how to comply with these stupid COVID restrictions while still making a scene work only to fail time and time again.
The best moment was when Midwife Trixie and her manfriend finally kiss. We all knew when that man was introduced in Season 10 that he was going to be Trixie’s new love interest. The writing in Call the Midwife isn’t exactly subtle.
So when the big moment finally arrives, rather than film the scene from the side where both Trixie and the guy are in the shot for the kiss, the kiss itself is shot from the back. All we see is the back of the guy and part of Trixie’s face as they presumably “kiss.”
Oh, man, I laughed my ass off at that.
Speaking of kisses, after the wedding, as the newlyweds finally make it back home, this is their first kiss on the bed:
Oh, honey. No!
Guys, why didn’t you wait until the stupid COVID restrictions were lifted before you started shooting this season?! I mean, come on!
Call the Midwife, post-Jenny Lee, relies on overly demonstrative displays of affection to make up for the series creator’s weaknesses as a writer. If you take that device away, the show becomes detached, emotionless, and entirely antiseptic.
Besides, in a series set in a specific time in the past (in Season 11’s case, 1967-68), the modern audience should be able to leave the present behind and join this world of the past. But in Season 11 we couldn’t leave the present behind. COVID came right along with us.
In Season 11, COVID is the special guest star, present in every scene. We are never unaware of its existence despite the action taking place more than 50 years before COVID emerged.
It was as glaringly anachronistic as having one of the 1960s characters pull out an iPhone.
COVID may kill less than 1% of the population, but it killed 100% of the mood in Call the Midwife’s 11th Season.
And that’s a damn shame.
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