Call The Midwife just held up a black mirror to our brave new world

Warning: this article contains spoilers for the new season premiere (episode one, season 12) of Call The Midwife on BBC One. 

Call The Midwife may well feel like the TV equivalent of a hot cup of tea – perhaps with a chocolate biscuit artfully positioned alongside it. As the season 12 premiere of Heidi Thomas’s award-winning series has proved once and for all, though, it is so much more than cosy Sunday night telly: it’s also a vehicle for exploring some of our real world’s most challenging and divisive issues.

It came as something of a shock to watch the people of Poplar – who had pulled together so well for their extra-special talent contest over Christmas – become a community divided this week following Enoch Powell’s hateful 1968 Rivers of Blood speech.

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Lifting lines from the real address, which Powell delivered in Birmingham ahead of the second reading of the Race Relations Bill (a legislation designed to prohibit racial discrimination in employment, commerce, housing and public services), the camera pans to some of our most beloved characters as they listen to the inflammatory speech.

“In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time, the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man,” the Conservative MP can be heard declaring, prompting Lucille (Leonie Elliott) to plead with her husband to switch off the radio. Cyril (Zephryn Taitte), however, refuses.

“Incitement to racial hatred in this country is a crime,” he reminds his wife.

“Who’s going to arrest a politician?” responds Lucille. “It won’t stop people from acting on his words.”

Tragically, it was Lucille, not Cyril, who turned out to be correct, with some 1,000 London dock workers marching out in support of Powell when he’s swiftly sacked from his post as shadow defence secretary. Perhaps worse, though, is the reaction of Greta Pickard (Phoebe Thomas), an overworked pregnant mum with whom Lucille has been getting along with famously until this point.

“He just goes on and on, nurse,” Greta says of her husband Wally (Richard James-Neale), who it soon transpires is a staunch supporter of Powell. “It’s like he’s boring into my brain.”

It seems, for a while, as if Greta is immune to her husband’s racist rhetoric. During her labour, though, she becomes exhausted and overheated, and lashes out at Lucille over the repeated physical examinations. She wants gas and air, and so when Mrs Patel (Hiral Varsani), who is further along in her labour than her, is taken straight through to the delivery room ahead of Greta, she sees red.

“I didn’t realise I was in a queue,” she snaps, showing us how quickly people seek to blame others for their own misfortunes. “You know, Enoch Powell was right; it’s bad enough being shoved in a corner, let alone being left alone in bloody agony because of somebody who has no right to be here coming in and here queue-barging like the place belongs to her.”

Quietly, Lucille replies: “Mrs Patel is having her first baby. She’s better off in a delivery room if there are complications.”

“The complication is immigrants,” Greta fires back. “Coming here, grabbing things other people have paid for and taking all the jobs. British people are born here; we come first. They should all just go home.”

“I am an immigrant,” Lucille reminds her, voice breaking with emotion, “but like everybody else from the Commonwealth, I came here to work and to play my part and to take my place. I came to make Britain my home, and I did not expect to be made unwelcome.”

Lucille walks out on the labouring mother, leaving her to be assisted by one of the other midwives on call. It quickly becomes apparent, during a subsequent meeting with Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), that the interaction has hurt her deeply and that the simmering undercurrent of racial tension has impacted her mental wellbeing in an incredibly damaging way.

“I’m not sick,” she tells Cyril, after being persuaded to take a period of sick leave. “I’m sad.”

Linda Basset as Nurse Phyllis Crane and Hiral Varsani as Zoya Patel in Call The Midwife

Thankfully, there is some light to be found in this harrowing storyline, as Greta manages to redeem herself by taking the aforementioned Zoya Patel – who she finds sobbing in her hospital bed as she listens to her son’s distant cries – gently by the hand and taking her to see her baby. She takes the time to see the person behind the statistics being shoved down her throat by Powell and his supporters. And she gently reveals that, like so many other self-described “born and bred” Brits, her own family’s history did not begin in the UK.

“I’m gonna call her Marie,” she says of her own baby girl. “There’s been Maries in my family ever since we came over from France as silk-weavers 200 years ago.

“We ain’t seen silk since.”

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The episode serves as an important reminder for viewers, especially considering the fact that dozens of people have lost their lives attempting passage to the UK, including 27 who died when a packed smuggling boat capsized in November 2021. Still, though, Suella Braverman, the UK’s home secretary, has described the increasing number of migrants arriving via the English Channel as “an invasion on our southern coast” and told lawmakers in parliament this week to “stop pretending that they are all refugees in distress”.

Considering that the Rivers of Blood speech has been blamed for leading to violent attacks against British Pakistanis and other British Asians, which became frequent after the speech in 1968, attitudes such as these should absolutely be cause for concern.

“The government rhetoric since I arrived has been scapegoating migrants, blaming us for the problems of this country. But it’s gotten a lot worse,” Hassan Akkad, a documentary maker who fled Syria in 2012 to seek asylum in the UK, recently told ABC News.

“When you have a home secretary comparing asylum seekers to an invading enemy, you are giving a green light to the public to attack them.”

Call The Midwife: Leonie Elliott as Lucille Robinson.

All we can hope is that shows such as Call The Midwife and The Handmaid’s Tale – which similarly tackled themes of racial hatred in its recent fifth season – will serve to remind viewers that refugees and migrants are more than statistics. Rather, they are people who are deserving of our compassion and support. 

And, perhaps more importantly, Greta’s storyline shows us that it is not enough to be non-racist in a racist society. Instead, to quote Angela Y Davis, “we must be anti-racist” – because to be or do anything less is to be part of the problem.

Call The Midwife airs on BBC One and BBC iPlayer. 

Images: BBC

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