A closeted gay man is arrested for gross indecency, igniting a conversation among the Nonnatus House residents about what constitutes a crime in 1960 London.
Last week, Call the Midwife‘s springtime episode put the spotlight on both Trixie’s engagement party and Patsy’s slow-burning romance with her girlfriend, Delia, giving us all hope that everlasting love was in the air in Poplar.
Think again—especially in the case of Patsy and Delia, the latter of whom wisely did not appear in this week’s episode. The 21st-century CTM fans got a painful slap in the face this week as the show turned its attention to one of the more embarrassing episodes of British history: the criminalization of homosexuality. Although this topic has been well-covered territory of late, specifically in the 2014 film The Imitation Game, and to an extent, in the more recent Thomas Barrow subplots on Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife‘s decision to jump on the gay story-line bandwagon took the subject matter a step further. In addition to illustrating the government’s harsh penalties (homosexuality wouldn’t be decriminalized in Britain until 1967), Call the Midwife portrayed a far more crippling effect the U.K.’s anti-homosexuality stance had on gay men at the time: the ostracism they endured by their own families and community. This week’s main plotline is a reflection of the mores of the period, and while it may be tremendously upsetting to watch, there are a lot of hard truths in it.
Shortly after the camera pans over the exterior of a men’s public restroom in the episode’s opening moments (once again, I must criticize the unnecessary heavy-handedness here), we meet Tony Amos (Richard Fleeshman in an excellent performance). Tony is a mechanic in his father-in-law’s garage, and he’s got a young pregnant wife, Marie (coincidentally played by onetime Downton Abbey actress Cara Theobold), at home. But even before Tony takes a nighttime stroll over to the public men’s room nearby, the 2015 viewers know what’s coming. When Marie gets a midwife visit from Patsy, she shows off her husband’s “pride and joy”—the spotless parlor—and prattles on about how he “loves this room to be just so.” It’s hard not to scream at the television, “Marie! Open your eyes!” but we need to give her the benefit of the doubt here. This is someone who grew up in a world where homosexuality was considered “unnatural,” and the likelihood of Marie having any sort of “gaydar” was a stretch of the imagination.
So Tony is caught kissing a man—who happened to be an undercover police officer staking out the well-known spot for discreet assignations—and is summarily arrested by Sergeant Peter Noakes. Peter shows Tony zero mercy, which is both disappointing, as we’ve come to know the local copper as one of the more kindhearted chaps on Call the Midwife, and realistic for the time. It begs the question—if Chummy were around for this episode, would she have helped to soften his approach? Sadly, we’ll never know.
What follows is a traumatic downward spiral of Tony’s existence—and ironically, his appearance at court on the charges of “sexual perversion and moral corruption” was the easy part. Thanks to Dr. Turner, who served as a character witness, Tony is not sentenced to prison, but his life as he knew it is over: He loses his job at the garage, the word “Queer” is painted across the Amos’ front door, and the Nonnatus House handyman, Fred, kicks Tony out of Poplar’s Civil Defence Corps (the neighborhood H-bomb watch).
NEXT: An awkward dinner conversation
The only sympathetic male character we get here is Patrick Turner. But perhaps the writers gave him a more tolerant mind-set because the good doctor is also the person who must administer the awful court-mandated “treatment” program for Tony: Estrogen pills that will “suppress his urges,” but also make him impotent, cause him to lose muscle and body hair, and cause breast growth. We as 2015 viewers forget that just rattling off the side effects will not help Marie understand that chemical castration is a shattering prospect for her husband: “Well, it’s not prison,” she states coldly. To us, her response sounds unfeeling, but back then, it was considered compassionate.
It’s easy to criticize Marie here, for caring more about what the neighbors think than what Tony must be going through. The truth is, this was before any sort of LGBT education or activism really existed, so how could she even begin to understand what was happening here? It’s upsetting to watch her trying to act like everything is normal and hurling unsupportive sucker-punches at Tony like, “I don’t want you to be the same,” after he tells her he doesn’t want to take the estrogen pills. But from Marie’s perspective, her husband was sick, and the “tablets” provided a necessary cure.
The only place where a real conversation about homosexuality actually took place this episode was, in fact, Nonnatus House. Because other than the Turner household, it was the only place in Poplar with enough educated heads under one roof to have an honest debate about the matter. But honest only to a point—the women of Nonnatus are indeed tolerant, but accepting one of their own as gay? It’s a risk Patsy just isn’t at liberty to make yet.
Nonnatus House served as a microcosm for all of the differing thoughts on the matter: There’s Patsy, who is the most understanding of Tony’s predicament, but, even more so now, must keep her real feelings hidden (which isn’t so hard—Trixie continues to be clueless to Patsy’s hints about how nurses can’t have any dark secrets). So she gives the vaguely worded opinion that the community shouldn’t be so “small-minded.” The novice Sister Winifred, however, offers up the opposite, albeit unpleasant, end of the argument: “Sodomy is a sin.” Sister Julienne, as always, tries to be the mediator, saying that Tony will be judged in a court of law, not by them. But it’s the elderly Sister Monica Joan who, not surprisingly, ends up making the most sense, teaching everyone at the dinner table the true meaning of what constitutes wrongdoing: “I always thought the essence of crime is that some harm is done to someone,” she says.
Yet it’s Trixie’s stance that ends up being the most pleasing of all, heralding a burgeoning new attitude among her generation that will only grow stronger in the coming years: “I thought we’d fought a war over fascism,” she says. “And that’s what this this. Telling people who they can and cannot love.” Trixie also reveals that she has a personal stake in what people like Tony endure: She was once a beard for a young doctor whose career would have been ruined if he didn’t step out every now and then with a woman on his arm.
NEXT: All I have to do, is dream…
In the case of Tony Amos, though, not enough people in Poplar hold Trixie’s point of view, and by the end of the episode he’s attempting suicide via asphyxiation in his father-in-law’s garage. CTM stops short of allowing Tony to succeed—he’s rescued at the 11th hour by Marie’s dad, who only had a change of heart because he overheard his in-labor daughter screaming for her husband—which was a smart move on their part. On the surface, it suggests an “everything’s gonna be okay” ending, with Tony returning home to be a good family man to his wife and daughter, mainly because the loving, caring women of Nonnatus House will stand by the Amos family no matter what.
But we all know that Tony promising to be a devoted father, which means remaining with Marie, isn’t the right answer. And that’s what’s so devastating about this story line: Things aren’t going to be hunky-dory. Even if Tony puts on a stiff upper lip for the rest of his life and stays with Marie to raise their child, he’s going to be miserable. This is a man who is so desperate for a different existence that he confesses to Dr. Turner he yearns for sleep because “I can have what I want in my dreams.”
Vanessa Redgrave’s closing narration reinforces that idea: “But that place that we call home must be the place in which we are ourselves.” The sad truth is, there is no safe haven for Tony—certainly not in his own home—not at least for another seven years. Most likely, he’ll have to wait decades before he can feel comfortable in his own skin.
–The secondary plotline this week involved another group experiencing bigotry in 1960 Poplar: the destitute Irish. Dolores McEvoy is a malnourished, pregnant mother of two boys, forced to stay at a filthy, cockroach-infested “boarding house” while her husband scrounges for any work he can get—again, not easy considering he’s Irish. The impoverished Dolores, who wears a burlap sack in place of underwear, provides the midwives with their Dangerous Delivery of the Week as she is stricken with dysentery just as she goes into labor.
I’m not saying that cases like that of the McEvoy family didn’t exist, but now that we’re on the third episode of the first “Inspired by the Memoirs of Jennifer Worth” season, it’s become quite clear that the writers are going more for shock value than trying to stay true to Worth’s experiences. Sure, before Jessica Raine left CTM, Jenny Lee and the midwives saw their share of squalid conditions, but in this season alone, the depressing factor has been put into overdrive, and I’m not so sure it’s helping the show.
–It appears Trixie might be on the road to a drinking problem. Phyllis Crane notices she’s throwing back several Camparis while they’re quarantined together post-dysentery delivery, so she offers up the story of her own family’s alcoholism. Trixie, not ready to have a mirror held up to her issues, immediately cuts her off.