Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Sister Evangelina Will Cut You

Did your cable drop Oxygen where you live? Are you unable to spend your weekends marathoning The Duchess and the 1995 and 2005 versions of Pride and Prejudice on continuous alternating repeat? Kids, I have your salvation.  It comes in the form of a darling little costume drama that does not get nearly the amount of attention it deserves:  BBC's sleeper hit, Call the Midwife

Slums are so whimsical!

I have drunk of the cup of Call the Midwife kool-aid and I am here seeking converts. Oh, yeahhhh. 

Following the runaway train (never goin' back) that is ITV's Downton Abbey, our beloved PBS (fuck you, Mitt Romney) has no qualms with airing ITV and (its rival) BBC dramas on the same network.  THIS IS WHY WE FOUGHT THE REVOLUTION, FOLKS.

Call the Midwife is set in the late 1950s in Poplar, which had historically been an impoverished area of East London. These days, I'm pretty sure Poplar is inhabited by hipsters and performance artists, so I don't recommend stopping during your next tour of London, unless you want your dignity assaulted by a mime. 

Guess what animal I am? Nope. Not that. Nope, not that, either. Nope. I was a frog.

During the Call the Midwife era, Poplar was essentially a slum, which had seen no less than its fair share of tragedy. In 1917, eighteen Poplar children were killed when a German Gotha bomber shellacked a primary school. Even during WWI, it was populated by the disadvantaged, largely ignored by the British government until the National Health Service began serving poor neighborhoods after WWII.

The residents of 1950s Poplar are working class to poverty-stricken, and many are emotionally scarred former residents of 19th and early 20th century workhouses. However, being situated close to the docks, some teevee Poplar residents earn income from the shipping and fishing industries. Conditions are still very bad. The housing is substandard and the residents suffer from all the usual suspects that accompany poverty. Also, with this being the 1950s, no one uses birth control.

That is where Nonnatus House steps in. I'm not even exaggerating when I say this, BUT THERE ARE NUNS. Nonnatus House is a convent of Anglican nuns who run a prenatal clinic, a health clinic and deliver most of the babies in Poplar, with the aid of four trained twenty-something nurses from the National Health Service.

We're here to talk to you about sex!

Our heroine is Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), on whose memoirs of nursing in 1950s and 60s Poplar the show is based. The narrated voice of the older Jenny is none other than VANESSA EFFING REDGRAVE. Also? Nuns.

I'm following every rainbow, bitches!

Jenny left her comfy middle-class home to train as a nurse after her relationship with the married Rakehelly Dishonor Esq. somehow did not work out. The other secular midwives are Trixie (Helen George), "Chummy" Noakes (Miranda Hart) and Cynthia Miller (Bryony Hannah).  Whenever a call comes into Nonnatus House, the midwives on duty pack up their baby-having kit and head off on their bicycles to deliver a baby. Hence the title. 

If you're already squeamish about childbirth, this show will not help. I really think it ought to be shown in high school sex ed classes during the contraceptive unit. Fortunately, I can close my eyes and say, "Ew." The birthing scenes are not really graphic per se, but they're biologically accurate. For those of you who think it's "miraculous," have at it. I will continue to be a little grossed out. 

The Season 2 premiere opens with Jenny riding her bicycle back to the convent as another day of work ends in Poplar. She has been out on a case. When she returns to the convent, there is cake! There is always cake at the convent due to batty Sister Monica Joan's penchant for sweets, but this time, the nuns baked a cake because it's Jenny's birthday! The midwives have a little time to celebrate, and then it's off to the movies! The movie is about Dreamy McDreamboat, who sings about flowers and sunshine. The girls share a box of chocolates they've snuck into the theater. Chocolates are easy to sneak into a movie theater. Harder with doughnuts. Easiest with alcohol.

Sister Julienne normally runs the roost, but the next day, Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris) gives the midwives their marching orders. She sends Cynthia off to check on a mother whose baby isn't feeding, and upbraids Trixie for walking in late. Trixie protests her day's assignment, but Sister Evangelina shushes her and sends her on her way. Sister Christian doesn't want any nunsense from Trixie, and it doesn't help that Sr. disapproves of Trixie and her fast vixen ways. 

I'm going to wear lipstick and go on dates with men!

At the prenatal clinic, it's up to Chummy to demonstrate to the preggo ladies Dr. Turner's newfangled nitrous oxide machine! Chummy gets to do all the fun stuff. Last season, the nuns asked Chummy to run a clinic (quite literally) on condoms, and she met with skepticism and jeers from local ladies as she demonstrated how to unfold a safety first on a dildo. Nuns have this stuff lying around the convent. Legit. 

Chummy inhales too much gas during the demo, and she quite passes out. Dr. Turner is super stoked about N2O. Its original purpose was to ease labor pains and make delivery a little easier. Also? Laughing gas. However, the midwives find it only results in turning all the expectant mothers in Poplar into huffers.  Cynthia and Chummy discover this on their next case. They're not supposed to call Dr. Turner unless the case turns serious, but the mother insists on getting her fix for her labor pains. Posthaste. This leads to Dr. Turner being called to several ensuing deliveries which he would not have ordinarily attended.

Jenny's worried that Molly Brignall hasn't shown up for her prenatal check. Molly hasn't been in for four weeks, so Sister E tells Jenny to visit the next day. Jenny arrives, and hears Molly's husband yelling at her. Molly's protesting about not being able to do SOMETHING VAGUE because she's almost at term, but Richie's insisting that she has to do it because they need the money. Richie answers the door and he's sickeningly polite, but Jenny's not stupid. She notices that their house is too dirty for a home delivery. She also notices a bruise on Molly's arm. Not cool, bro. It's very apparent to Jenny that her patient is in abusive relationship. Jenny and the other midwives have lost patients in the past, and she's determined to save Molly -- from herself if she has to.  Molly also has a young daughter, Lorraine, who is witnessing all of this. Jenny tells the nuns she can't understand why the house was passed for home delivery five weeks ago, and Cynthia says that, five weeks ago, it did pass inspection. Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) instructs Jenny to contact Molly's mother.

Jenny visits Molly's mother, Mrs. Gray. Mrs. Gray tells Jenny that she's had a difficult time with Molly. Molly was evacuated during the war, and she came home afterward, but her father was killed in action and things haven't been the same since. Molly has nearly cut her mother out of her life, and Mrs. Gray says she doesn't like Richie, but Molly feels safe with him. Jenny informs Mrs. Gray that if Molly doesn't clean up her living conditions, the social services will have to get involved. Molly allows her mother to come over and clean after Richie leaves for...wherever it is that Richie goes. If Pete Campbell could be sleazier and smarmier and more of an asshole and way more evil, that would be this Richie fellow.

Richie creepily creeps in a few hours later, and he is none too pleased to see Mrs. Gray there. Jenny leaves, and she hears Richie screaming at Mrs. Gray. Jenny bursts back in, and sees Richie threatening to burn Molly with a cigarette if Mrs. Gray doesn't leave. Jenny leaps at him and shoves him off Molly. Jenny files a report with Chummy's policehusband, Peter (Ben Caplan). Sister Julienne tells Jenny to hold off on getting the federales involved, because she fears that Richie will forbid Molly from receiving any kind of medical care. It's a testament to Jenny and the other three midwives that they get very involved in their respective patients' well-being. Her ensuing visits to Molly are equally heartbreaking. She finally convinces Molly that she must deliver her baby at the maternity home, and she has to leave her daughter with her mother during the delivery. Throughout the episode, Jenny struggles to understand the addictive and unhealthy nature of Molly's relationship with Richie. She doesn't know how to help Molly find the courage to break away from a bad relationship, as she was able to do, because it is a very different situation. Later, Richie says something dickish to Molly, and she goes into labor. She's able to get herself to her mother's house, and her mother telephones Nonnatus House.

Sister Evangelina puts her foot down about the nitrous oxide, and these Modern Females protest that women should be allowed pain treatment during labor. Cynthia and Trixie gossip about how unkempt both the doctor and his son have been looking lately, until Sister Bernadette (Laura Main) shushes them. Sister Bernadette is crushing hard on Dr. Turner. Dr. Turner is a widower with a young son, and he's apparently the only doctor in Poplar, so he of course needs A Woman to Look After Him. 

Now...about that "vow of chastity" part...

Chummy starts to have second thoughts about giving up her ambitions to nurse in Africa (which had been part of her plan to run away from her former Downton Abbey-esque lifestyle). She helps Peter study for his upcoming promotion examination, and she helps him go over the laws about, of all things, PROSTITUTION. For those of you playing at home, have you caught on yet?

If you haven't, Peter calls Nonnatus House from the popo station. Chummy answers, and he tells her there's a woman in labor on board a cargo ship. Chummy thinks it's a joke because women aren't allowed on cargo ships, but Peter insists that it has to be checked out. Trixie's on call that night, and she and Jenny are going to head to the ship, but that's when Mrs. Gray's call comes through. Jenny feels she has to see Molly through this, so Trixie is left to head to the docks at the mercy of Sister Evangelina.  Sister Evangelina assumes the captain of said ship is German -- after he tells her he's Swedish -- and so she takes the obvious course and vacillates between yelling at him in German and Spanish. German + Spanish = Swedish. Trixie and Sister Evangelina are rowed out to the ship and Sister Evangelina takes the opportunity to get in a few digs at Trixie. But wait! There's more! Once they reach the vessel, they learn they must CLIMB A LADDER to get on deck. Sister Evangelina is not exactly young and not in the best of shape, and Trixie is wearing heels. Hijinks ensue. 

Sister Evangelina cannot, in fact, climb every mountain. It seems long ladders dangling from steel vessels are her limit. She falls onto the deck and dislocates her shoulder. It is now up to Trixie to save the day! She successfully climbs the ladder, to the delight of the gentlemen waiting up top. They're led to a tiny cabin, where a young lady is screaming in pain. Such a beautiful thing, that birthing process. 

The senorita in question is Kirsten, the captain's daughter. Kirsten cheerfully reveals to Trixie and Sr. that she's been serving as a live blow-up doll for the sailors on her father's ship. Like this is somehow normal. Apparently, Dear Old Dad has brainwashed her into believing that prostitution is her mission in life, and has even supplied her with a free lifetime's supply of condoms. Darlingest Papa has been whoring out his daughter to his crew, convinced that if they are not horny, they will not think about mutiny. Because that makes sense. Sister Evangelina is mad at hell about this nunsense, and insists that the captain find Kirsten a better room for the birth. Trixie takes charge! She figures she will keep Sister Evangelina placated by plying her with some of the ship's brandy supply.

How fortunate that we took advantage of this poor girl 60 years before the Maury show.

Jenny's able to help Molly through a pretty routine labor, but Trixie isn't so lucky. Trixie alerts Sr. E. that Kirsten's baby is prolapsed, and Sister E helpfully reminds her that a Caesarian is out of the question. They can't physically move Kirsten to a better position, so Trixie improvises by hitching Kirsten up on a chair. Trixie's able to manually get the umbilical cord out of the way ("Lots of room in there," she quips), while Kirsten yells out some curses in Viking. Trixie successfully delivers a baby girl. Kirsten is grateful for their presence, and for the baby. She says she's happy she finally has friends. Estrogen levels surge. Audience reaches for hankies.

Jenny presents Molly with her newborn son, and notices another bruise on her breast area. The next morning, Molly takes the baby and sneaks out of the maternity house before she's properly discharged. Jenny and Mrs. Gray knock on the door, but Richie answers. He takes Lorraine inside and slams the door in their faces. Jenny tries to visit Molly after that, but no one ever answers her knock.

El Capitan thanks Trixie for her service, but Trixie lets him know she's thoroughly disgusted with him pimping his daughter. She lets him know that he has to have a boat waiting for her so she can check in on Kirsten and the baby before they leave port, and she also informs him that she could easily report him to the police. Sister Evangelina gets carried on a gurney to a waiting ambulance, and orders Trixie to giver her some laughing gas. Sister Evangelina is quite the tweaker.

There's a short scene featuring Molly standing in an alleyway, with Richie talking to an unidentified man in a car. Molly gets into the car, and it becomes clear that Richie has been forcing her into prostitution. Jenny finds out later that Asshole Dad has been leaving the children alone, giving them milk and alcohol to keep them quiet. Sadly, the house soon after catches on fire, and Molly and Richie are imprisoned for child neglect. Fortunately, Lorraine and the baby are sent to live with Gran. Mrs. Gray gets a second chance to have a loving family and the children get a chance at a better life. 

The nuns let Trixie work in slacks, and she gets to dress like Marilyn to pay her regular visits to Kirsten.The sight of a nattily clad squaw elates the sailors, all of whom have hopefully found some obliging females whilst in port. Trixie has a present for Kirsten from the National Health Service. It's condoms! What Every Girl Wants. Kirsten informs her that she's gotten some R-E-S-P-E-C-T for herself and will not be playing the Staten Island Ferry for any more men. She is going to disembark once they get to Stockholm and raise her daughter on land. Dad can't object because...well, he can't.

In the foreshadowing department:

1) There's a glimpse of Chummy addressing a letter to Parts Unknown. 

2) Sister Bernadette takes it upon herself to personally sew buttons onto Dr. Turner's coat.

Are you thoroughly verklempt? This author is very happy about the return of Call the Midwife. Now, if only The Beeb had not axed The Hour. I need my Ben Whishaw and I need it now! 

Downton Abbey fans should for sure tune into this show. It's definitely an antidote to whatever Douchebag-Meets-Skank dating reality nonsense the main networks are offering in this time slot.

Call the Midwife airs at 8 p.m. on Sundays in my neck o' the woods. Check your local PBS stations for air dates and times. OR, you can watch episodes online at pbs dot org. Also! Season 1 is FINALLY available on instant watch on Netflix. 

Biker Bitch for the Lord!


Clovis said...

Oh, how I WISH I had thought of the "nunsense" tag back when American Horror Story was still running. There has been so much nun these past six months on the blog! I do love the old girls, even when they're being creepy. I may have to go back and add that tag onto all the AHS posts.

Arsenic Pie said...

We should just give everything a "nunsense" tag. NUNS FTW!!

Maggie Cats said...

I really need to watch this, you and my Mom have both recommended it. Perhaps I will add it to my "summer viewing" list?

Arsenic Pie said...

Defo. Netflix has it on instant watch now!! I got it from them on DVD after many a "long wait" and "very long wait."