It's Christmas 1959 in London's East End, and change is coming for the midwives of Nonnatus House once again as a new decade approaches.
While Americans don’t have the luxury of curling up with a hot cuppa tea post-Christmas Day feast to watch the Downton Abbey Christmas Special (since PBS doesn’t air the new season until January, we don’t get to see the Christmas Special till sometime in February), the folks over at PBS offered up a nice compromise for December 25: The Call the Midwife Christmas Special, which had a rare, first-run airing both in Britain and in the U.S. Fans of this “gritty, edgy” (seriously, if you haven’t checked out this hilarious parody video the cast did in 2013, stop everything and watch it now) BBC series got to briefly catch up with their favorite East End nuns and nurses, and, as a holiday treat, see “Voice of Mature Jenny” Vanessa Redgrave in the flesh for the first time in three seasons.
Although considered the season 3 finale, the CTM Christmas Special served in many ways as the start of a new direction for the critically acclaimed series. It is the first episode without Jessica Raine, who, up until the previous episode, portrayed protagonist Nurse Jenny Lee. Quickie cheat sheet: Call the Midwife is based on the memoirs of the same name by Jennifer Worth (a.k.a. Jenny Lee), and the end of season 3 saw Jenny, like her real-life counterpart, leave midwifery to pursue a career as a Marie Curie nurse.
The Jenny-less Christmas Special was just as entertaining as any episode with Raine, which should be chalked up to CTM‘s robust ensemble, but it’s hard to say at this point if the show is going to suffer in the long run without a leading role. My hope is they will take a page out of the Game of Thrones playbook and move supporting player Miranda Hart (who is CTM‘s version of Peter Dinklage) into the forefront.
We won’t know the answer to that until CTM‘s fourth season premieres on PBS in late March 2015, but Hart (who plays the aristocratic nurse-with-a-heart-of-gold Camilla “Chummy” Noakes) has been slowly working her way into American audiences’ hearts for some time now thanks to her brilliant comedic timing: Remember that popular viral video of Benedict Cumberbatch doing the Beyoncé walk from a couple of months ago? Take a gander at who taught him how to do it in the first place—yep, that’s Miranda Hart all right.
Another new direction CTM took in the Christmas Special came in the form of Nurse Cynthia Miller’s (Bryony Hannah) story line. In a reverse of the Sister Bernadette (now Shelagh Turner, played by Laura Main) subplot from season 2, in which the young Nonnatus House nun chose to leave the religious life in order to marry Dr. Patrick Turner, Cynthia makes the life-changing decision to join the order of St. Raymond Nonnatus. There’s a bit of contrived conflict where Cynthia’s fellow girlie-girl midwives Beatrix “Trixie” Franklin (Helen George) and Patience “Patsy” Mount (Emerald Fennell)—who always manage to look impeccably dressed, groomed, and coiffed, even after 12 hours of labor and delivery—question her decision, believing she’s throwing away the rest of her life.
NEXT: It’s a hard-knock life
But by the end of the episode, they’re happily ringing in 1960 by sending off the sweet, angelic Cynthia (now dressed in her postulant’s garb) to her new life as a servant of God. In case anyone was worrying that this development also meant Bryony Hannah would be leaving the show, the writers gave Cynthia a line of dialogue confirming her return to the CTM setting—after all, the Nonnatus House nuns are trained nurses and midwives, as they like to remind the audience every. Single. Episode.
It was also a treat to finally see Vanessa Redgrave leave her voice-over perch to bookend the Christmas Special as a 2005 version of Jennifer Worth getting all nostalgic with her husband, Philip, about her midwifery days. But continuing to have Redgrave narrate the series seems a bit incongruous now that Jenny Lee is no longer at Nonnatus House. How can “Mature Jenny” reminisce about events she didn’t participate in?
Otherwise, the Christmas Special wasn’t much different from other CTM episodes, save for its longer run time and holiday-season time frame—which is now Christmas 1959. The midwives had their usual batch of harsh realities to deal with while also prepping the local Poplar kiddies for the Christmas pageant. After a resident of a Mother and Baby Home (read: shelter for unwed mothers) blows the whistle on the Dickensian institution’s egregious management—it’s being run by a drunken, cold-hearted British version of Miss Hannigan—it’s Chummy and Patsy to the rescue.
In less than 80 minutes, these fairy godmothers on sturdy black bicycles have whipped the Mother and Baby Home into a shipshape, spic-and-span model of cleanliness and have even taught the pregnant-in-heels (and red lipstick and faux mink hat), formerly abandoned orphan Avril Fox to love and cherish her unwanted baby. It’s a Christmas miracle! Meanwhile, in an exceptionally depressing subplot that makes you forget this is supposed to be a Christmas Special, Cynthia and Sister Winifred (Victoria Yeates) tend to a destitute, mentally disabled couple, Victor and Nancy, who are barely capable of handling basic, everyday tasks after life in yet another Dickensian institution that felt the need to both lobotomize and sterilize poor Nancy. But at least Sister Winifred is around to help them make mince pies for Christmas!
And other than scoring one of the episode’s best lines of the night (“Liqueur chocolates, how decadent! And a urine sample!”), Trixie didn’t seem to have much to do (other than bitching about Cynthia’s life choice), so one can only presume she spent most of the Christmas Special enticing her handsome curate (that’s British-speak for “minister”) beau Tom Hereward (Jack Ashton) to unwrap her under the Christmas tree.
NEXT: No nunsense
There’s also a last-minute emergency that forces Police Constable Peter Noakes (Ben Caplan) to stop being so dependent on his wife, Chummy—stranded due to inclement weather—and to seek medical attention for baby Freddie all by himself (gasp!!!). As if she doesn’t have enough to do what with running the unwed-mothers’ home while also trying to be a mum to her own son, apparently Peter the Pantywaist can’t study for an upcoming policeman’s test without his wife there to hold his hand.
Not that we wanted to see baby Freddie suffering from a severe case of the croup—a brief moment of lucidity on the filter-less Sister Monica Joan’s (Judy Parfitt) part (she was blaming “Herr Hitler” for the destruction of a Nativity figurine only days earlier) allowed for a hasty diagnosis and treatment—but it was nice to see Peter receive a much-needed dose of reality: Life is going to throw you curveballs, and your cool-headed wife won’t always be there to solve your problems, so learn to deal with them.
By morning, with Freddie much improved, Peter heads off for his exam, but not before a pep talk/suit brushing from Mr. Bates Sister Evangelina (Pam Ferris), and guess what? He passes!
So as the episode closes with a tickety-boo Christmas dinner complete with colored paper crowns and a flaming pudding, the residents of Nonnatus House look to the future and the coming of a brand-new decade. With only Trixie and Patsy left as the single ladies about town, my hope that CTM season 4 will somehow find a way to send these two on a girls’ weekend in Hamburg sometime in the late summer/early fall of 1960. It’s a stretch, yes, especially because they both seem a little too posh to head off to the Reeperbahn, but who wouldn’t want to see these two stumble into a nightclub and witness a midnight rock show by a rough-and-ready gang of lads from Liverpool? We might even get to see Patsy treat a 20-year-old John Lennon for a venereal disease…