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TV review: Gentle drama in 'Call the Midwife'

Published: Saturday, Sept. 29 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

Jessica Raine as Jenny Lee in "Call the Midwife."

Laurence Cendrowicz, © Neal Street Productions 2011

When “Call the Midwife” premiered on BBC One, it attracted more than 10 million British viewers, proving so popular that there was an uptick in midwifery students.

PBS is hoping for similar viewer enthusiasm with the six-part series beginning Sunday, Sept. 30, to be seen locally on KUED at 7 p.m., with the following episodes set for each Sunday night.

With all the polish you’d expect from a BBC period drama series, “Call the Midwife” will naturally be compared to the smash hit “Downton Abbey,” which returns with season three on (mark your calendars!) Jan. 6. The modest “Call the Midwife” might just be enough to tide viewers over, but its canvas is smaller and the drama more gentle.

Set in the poverty-stricken tenements in 1950s east London and based on the real-life memoirs of a midwife, “Call the Midwife” has the prim but determined 22-year-old Jenny Lee as its main character. She’s newly certified and starting her first job as a midwife. Expecting to find a hospital, Jenny is surprised to learn that the clinic is a convent and begins working alongside an order of nuns.

There’s the angelic Sister Julienne and the grumpy Sister Evangelina along with Sister Monica Joan, who mixes rambling quotes of poets with flashes on insight, who are attempting to cope with the 100 babies born each month. As Jenny’s fellow lay nurse-midwives, we meet wallflower Cynthia and Trixie, whose name alone describes her character, and the gangly Chummy joins them in the second episode.

While the supporting characters are interesting, all we ever learn about Jenny is that she has loved someone since she was 17 — “but I can’t have him.” She’s a posh girl who could have been an “air hostess or a model.” But for reasons not explained, she opted for hard, heartbreaking work in the slums. The neighborhood is a place of squalor and poverty, yet we see freshly scrubbed babies smiling in their prams, even after a mother has given birth to 24 children with number 25 on the way.

Vanessa Redgrave narrates each episode and provides a sturdy presence as the older Jenny looking back over her past. All the actors in the largely female cast are likable and perform their roles with charm, beginning with Jessica Raine, who plays Jenny.

What works best in “Call the Midwife” are the scenes of the relationships Jenny develops with her patients, which are nicely mixed with lighthearted moments of the nurses just being the young girls they are. Each episode brings new patients in different circumstances, and the primary focus of the first episodes are spent introducing the characters and Jenny’s new working environment.

The full drama develops slowly, so give yourself time if you want to fully enjoy the series. And you’ll learn a great deal about forceps and delivering babies in the breach position.

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