Christmas 1962: Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) receives a phonecall from Hope Clinic, a mission hospital in South Africa, in danger of closure due to being short-staffed the day before the start of a polio vaccination programme. Along with the Turners (Laura Main/Stephen McGann), Tom (Jack Ashton), Fred (Cliff Parisi) and a group of midwives, she arrives at the clinic to assist its only doctor, Myra Fitzsimmons (Sinéad Cussack). South Africa is a culture shock for all of them, not only the lack of supplies and the squalor but the very active Apartheid Regime and no clean water, which is a catalyst for dysentery. As always, Call The Midwife likes to incorporate important social issues into its storyline and again, it has paid off.
As usual, we have the tales of women in childbirth who suffer and the midwives who rush to their side and save the day. This Christmas, the writers went all out, as our favourite characters went to Cape Town in South Africa to rescue Hope Clinic from dying. This story had an historical context in which we saw the Apartheid Regime. Racial segregation, disease and poverty are three elements that followed the black mothers around and it made the British tourists uncomfortable when they went to a ‘whites only’ beach or when Trixy (Helen George) and others were dancing to music with their patients, only to be told not to by an officer, an enforcer of the barbaric apartheid law.
The South African landscapes were simply stunning, which leads me to plea for more exotic Christmas specials in the future, as it’s just been announced that we’ll have three more seasons taking us up to 2020. This special wasn’t quite as festive as one would think but it does incorporate themes that the British public appreciate, such as friendship, hope, courage and winning in the face of adversity but also more socially relevant themes, including poverty, racism, bigotry and prejudice.
Voiced by Vanessa Redgrave, Jenny Lee’s opening voiceover says “the most precious gifts cost nothing whatsoever.” This is an episode about unity and selflessness, as we see all the characters working together for the greater good. Giving without thought of incentive is not a new thing for this show but that theme is made much more potent, not because it’s Christmas but because they’re in a country that oppresses its own people, with poverty and disease claiming lives day in and day out.
Audiences may be disappointed about the lack of development with Patsy, Delia and Sister Monica Joan but everyone else seems to get included. Tom and Fred are on the trip to assess the clinic’s state and to help with its maintenance. Sister Julienne, Trixie (Helen George) and Barbara (Charlotte Richie) are there too, and Shelagh (Laura Main) joins Doctor Turner (Stephen McGann) to coordinate a polio vaccination programme for the area. With an assortment of characters, this isn’t your textbook Christmas special with cosiness and snow, but it’s an episode that throws our protagonists into boiling heat at a malnourished clinic in an impoverished society.
While it’s not the sole focus of the special, the BBC have not decided that South Africa’s racial issues don’t exist. This is South Africa in the 1960s in the thick of the Apartheid-era. Hope Clinic’s patients are disadvantaged black women who feel their own self-worth is relative to being able to birth children and raise families. It’s things like this that really make your heart break. There’s an instance with a phantom pregnancy that is ideologically troubling, as we see characters relaxing on a “whites only” beach that show how easy it is for people to commit casual acts of discrimination, in addition to an authoritarian police presence uncanny to an Orwellian surveillance state.
This episode is all about the small things and it shows that in the First World, we are complacent with everyday things that other countries are need of. We take many things for granted and it’s the small things that count. This episode pushes the show forwards into new ground, as our heroes deal with new challenges and experience things that have not witnessed in London, whether that be the lack of resources, casual acts of racial discrimination against their patients or even unclean water. Kind deeds are what makes communities. In this sense, regardless of the harsh South African realities, it captures the spirit of Christmas, which is to commit acts of selflessness without the hope of incentive, and that’s something worth treasuring.