Leeches, breech births and heroin … it’s the usual mix of medical emergencies and social commentary in another festive special that yanks on the heartstrings
Last modified on Sat 25 Dec 2021 21.37 GMT
The good news about the leech, says Dr Turner, “is it’s a sizeable specimen, so you won’t need more than the one.” Thank goodness. I thought he was about to put the whole jar of leeches – medical grade, collected from Barts that morning – on to poor Lucille’s bruised and swollen eye, and that the Call the Midwife Christmas special (BBC One) was about to take a horrifying turn. I can deal with a bit of blood – you have to with this show – but there’s a difference between birthing matters (“I have just lost the biggest mucus plug you’ve ever seen!” announces Mrs Howells, soon to be mother-of-five) and writhing blood-suckers, about to be attached within the vicinity of an eyeball.
The black eye is a hen night injury – a dangerous combination of the Nonnatus House stairs and Sister Hilda’s rum punch. Sister Hilda is recovering with aspirin; for Lucille, it’s leeches, treatment “from the 3rd century BC!” says Sister Monica Joan, with glee. “I feel sick just looking at them,” says trainee Nancy, while Lucille quivers with horror. After barely an hour, the leech is stuffed; by this point on Christmas Day, we might all know how it feels.
Lucille is back to her beautiful self, and her Boxing Day wedding to Cyril is saved. But there is trouble gestating elsewhere, and I don’t just mean the split in Fred Buckle’s Santa trousers. The midwives of Nonnatus House are expecting an influx of women – an extra 20 patients assigned from St Cuthbert’s hospital. “What do you suppose was going on in March?” asks Nancy, with a smirk. There are not enough midwives, then and now.
Worse, heroin has arrived in Poplar, and one of the pregnant women reluctantly attending the antenatal clinic is clearly an addict – she is, according to Sister Julienne, “underweight, and very pale”, TV shorthand for drug addiction. When Dr Turner is called to a gangland stabbing, the woman, Anita Page, is there. Anita shoots up in the laundry room, where her gangster husband – so undomesticated in 1966 he asks his mum how to make cheese on toast – will never find her.
Call the Midwife is approaching its 10-year anniversary and only the most wilfully ignorant still don’t know that beyond its heartwarming Sunday-night-telly feel, it has radical politics, and deftly chronicles social change. Now drugs are involved, there is the spectre of babies born with addiction. “It is a new challenge in this country, and it will become a scourge,” says Mother Mildred (Miriam Margolyes) – for she is returned! – across a screaming newborn. “One constantly saw babies suffer like this in Hong Kong.”
At the news that May, the adopted daughter of Nurse Shelagh and Dr Turner, “was one such child”, Shelagh is horrified – you can tell by the way her eyebrows mirror the shape of her glasses. They’re going to have to administer opiates to the newborn girl to ease her pain. “I know the dosage and I know the method,” says Mildred, earnestly. “No nurse who has done this work forgets, any more than she can forget that cry.” (A note on Margolyes: I revere her to the extreme, but I wonder if her newfound notoriety has ruined her for a role like this – every time she’s onscreen, especially when quietly contemplating prayer, I half-expect her to fart.)
It’s Christmas Day, and the babies keep coming. Mrs Howells needs forceps; Mrs Karphopalas is bleeding. Meanwhile, out on homebirth duty, Sister Frances is dealing with her first breech birth. She looks terrified. “Are you afraid, Sister?” asks Mrs Chu, in labour on her best sheets (“They were a wedding present, I’ve been saving them for the big event”). Sister Frances shakes her head. Are nuns allowed to lie?
One of my favourite things about Call the Midwife is that the religion is worn so lightly, and the nuns never let it overrule their humanity. The wellbeing of the mothers and babies comes first, as it does for the dedicated secular midwives. I’ll never tire of these wise, capable, kind women, nor this show, even if its emotional manipulation – along with its soundtrack – is fairly unrelenting. It doesn’t so much pull on the heartstrings as yank them vigorously, as if bellringing. By the time Lucille arrives at the church to discover she has bridesmaids and page boys after all – five children that she’d delivered when she first arrived in Poplar – I was undone. Pure comfort and joy.