I’ve previously written of my love for the remake of the beloved TV series All Creatures Great and Small, series two of which has just started airing on PBS. Every episode is full of fundamentally nice people doing nice things while being nice to each other, which is a welcome relief from the seemingly unrelenting negativity, unpleasantness, and downright nastiness so much in evidence these days.
“Nice” as a quality is vastly underrated. Don’t believe me? Spend a couple of hours on social media, then tell me I’m wrong. In the case of All Creatures, it should be used as a selling feature, along with the backdrop of the lovely Yorkshire Dales and some appealing animals. An hour of the show each week on a Sunday evening is a welcome chance to de-stress.
Another Sunday evening show I’ve been enjoying is Call the Midwife, which also features a lot of fundamentally nice people, although it’s a good deal grittier than All Creatures. It’s based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who worked as a nurse and midwife in the poverty-stricken East End of London in the 1950s, and follows the nurse-midwives associated with Nonnatus House, a nursing convent in the deprived neighbourhood of Poplar in London. The first series — which aired in 2012 — was set in 1957, and each subsequent series has advanced by about one year, with real-world events often impacting the lives of the characters.
I’ve been aware of the show for years, but only started watching in series nine. Normally I’m wary of jumping into a long-running show: all those back stories to catch up on, all those relationships to sort out! However, I was pleasantly surprised to feel right at home in Poplar as soon as I started watching, thanks to good writing that doesn’t get bogged down in the past, and deft characterizations from a fine group of actors who make you feel as if you’ve known them (or at least their on-screen alter egos) for ages.
The show gets excellent ratings in both the UK and on PBS in North America, and critical reaction seems to be good, with a number of critics remarking on the fact that the show tackles a lot of pretty heavy subjects and themes: abortion, marital and sexual abuse, single motherhood (a big deal in the 1950s and 1960s), racism, alcoholism, drug abuse, homosexuality, and more. Some people dismiss it as little better than a soap opera, which makes me suspect they haven’t actually watched it.
The fact that the show stars mainly women and deals mainly with childbirth is probably a clue as to why it’s easy for some to look down on it, and why it has been ignored by many awards bodies; those same bodies which fall all over themselves to bestow accolades on shows dealing with similarly gritty subjects but that don’t have a lot of women cluttering things up. Swap out the nursing order of nuns for a Mafia family, turn the midwives into a biker gang, and keep all the rest of Call the Midwife pretty much exactly as it is (drug overdoses, someone forced to undergo conversion therapy, a priest getting his housekeeper pregnant, a single mother shamed into giving up her child), and you’d have to start clearing space on the shelf for all the awards.
It’s indicative of the way that women’s stories still aren’t accorded the same weight or importance as men’s, which is odd in the case of Call the Midwife, reminding us as it does that without women, none of us would be here to watch television or do anything else. The fact that the show’s characters — like those in All Creatures Great and Small — are decent, kind human beings is probably another strike against it in the minds of some, who think those qualities are things to be sneered at, not admired.
Well, their loss, is all I can say. Given the state of the world, I’ll take all the “nice” you care to shovel at me; adorable animals and some Swinging Sixties fashion and music are just icing on the nice, delicious cake.