"Spinster" nurse Phyllis Crane reveals her dark past as she tries to help a pregnant diabetic teen and the juvenile delinquent who loves her.
Credit: Laurence Cendrowicz

The story line of a diabetic teenage girl impregnated by her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend provided all sorts of discussion fodder on this week’s Call the Midwife: There was the historical exploration of how 55 years ago, having children was out of the question for women with diabetes due to the potential medical risks. There was the burgeoning modern concept of diabetes patients administering their own injections and urine tests instead of having a nurse visit daily. There was Nurse Phyllis Crane’s admission that she too has a dark past just like a couple of her fellow midwives (quick refresher: Trixie had an alcoholic dad; Patsy spent WWII in a Japanese internment camp). And there was yet another (still-unanswered) ethical question posed to the audience: Should the boyfriend with-a-criminal-past go to jail for stealing a car—even though his actions wound up saving someone’s life?

Meet 17-year-old Paulette Roland—played by Outlander actress Nell Hudson. Like Scottish teen Laoghaire MacKenzie, whom Hudson portrays on the epic Starz series, Paulette likes to live on the wild side. She may not accuse women of being witches or seduce ginger-haired Highlanders while wearing little more than a corset, but she does wear Tabu, “The Forbidden Fragrance,” and enjoys having sex with her delinquent boyfriend, Vaughan Sellars. All pretty typical for a restless teenager in 1960 Poplar, but Paulette is playing with fire with this kind of behavior, because she’s got diabetes.

Back then, diabetic pregnancies were considered so dangerous that as soon as Nurse Crane realizes Paulette isn’t throwing up every morning due to blood-sugar issues, Dr. Turner is called in to recommend a legal, in-hospital abortion. Throw in the complication that Paulette and Vaughan are in love—even though Paulette’s mom despises Vaughan and his bad-boy reputation—and they want to keep the baby and get married, and you’ve got CTM‘s controversy of the week.

With her mother and Dr. Turner pressuring her to go through with the pregnancy termination, Paulette eventually snaps and runs away with Vaughan. But with their plan consisting of little more than teenage wits and a few apples to eat along the way, it’s hardly a surprise when Paulette goes into diabetic shock and Vaughan has no choice but to “borrow” someone else’s car in order to get his girlfriend medical assistance. And all these two kids get for their trouble is one National Health Service-funded abortion and an impending jail sentence. But, hey, at least now Mrs. Roland doesn’t think Vaughan is hazardous to Paulette’s health anymore, so, I guess that’s good for something, right?

It’s no secret that I am not a fan of the Vanessa Redgrave voice-overs that bookend the CTM episodes, especially now that her character, Jennifer (Lee) Worth, is no longer part of the show. However, this was one of those rare moments where I think the audience would’ve benefited from the kind of closure her narration provides, because the Paulette/Vaughn plotline is left atrociously open-ended: All we know is he was arrested and ostensibly faced prison time, and that Nurse Crane vowed to alert the court that Paulette would have died had it not been for his so-called crime. Even if Vaughn still went to jail—which, judging from CTM‘s track record of gloomy denouements—was likely, that would have been a better conclusion to the story than the half-baked mess we saw.

NEXT: “Call Me Phyllis”

There was one good thing to come out of the Paulette/Vaughan story line, though: We got some way-overdue backstory on Phyllis Crane, who has slid into Chummy’s place as my favorite character on the show (outta sight, outta mind, Chummy, sorry!). There were some distinct cracks in the gruff, no-nonsense “spinster’s” (as she matter-of-factly referred to herself when asked if she had children) armor this episode as she slowly started expressing interest in socializing with the much younger Trixie, Patsy, and Barbara, only to be rebuffed by giggles when the door closed behind her. It’s subtle, but when she comes to purchase a square-dance ticket from Patsy one night while the girls are gabbing and drinking in their bedroom, she lingers in the doorway a bit longer than necessary, hoping to be invited in. But it’s an invitation that never comes.

Turns out Nurse Crane has always had trouble fitting in, because, as she confides to Vaughan one night—who has his own issues dealing with a checkered past—she was born illegitimate, which, in 1960 Britain, still carried a stigma. Like Vaughan, who wants to separate himself from his criminal family, Nurse Crane had to work hard to change how she was perceived by others. “It didn’t stop me from making something of myself,” she says of her background.

There is no doubt of Nurse Crane’s accomplishments in light of what I must assume meant a lifetime of doors being shut in her face. But her distinct loneliness really starts to peek through this episode, specifically on the night of the neighborhood square dance (hasty tangent: OMG to Fred’s blue-fringed button-down shirt!) where she is so eager be one of the girls that she drops all formalities and tells Barbara to gasp! call her “Phyllis.” (Remembering herself, she immediately backtracks with, “just for this evening.”)

The generational difference between Nurse Crane and the younger nurses of Nonnatus House may not allow for too many opportunities for the social-life-starved senior midwife via Trixie, Patsy, and Barbara, but there are hints that 50 (or 60) is about to become the new 20 in Poplar: The hottest new couple on Call the Midwife is local haberdasher Violet Gee and Nonnatus House handyman Fred Buckle.

So I’d say there’s plenty of hope yet for Phyllis Crane in the relationship department, both platonic and romantic.

Quick thoughts:

  • It looks like the Delia-and-Patsy relationship is starting to chafe under the hiding-in-plain-sight tactic. Being at the square dance together isn’t any fun because they can’t hold each other close like all of the other couples there. When Delia dares to even suggest “a fox trot, or a waltz—even a tango,” Patsy refuses to take the bait: “There’s no place on earth where that would happen.” And Delia’s response, resigning herself to the reality of the era, is just flat-out depressing: “There must be somewhere, and until we find it, we’ll just have to dance together in our heads.”
  • So great to see Sister Evangelina back from her medical leave at the Mother House, barking orders at everyone and sniping at Nurse Crane at every turn. Guess they forgot about that truce they formed earlier in the season.
  • As I observed last week, the religious life suits the newly christened Sister Mary Cynthia. Cynthia Miller never would’ve had the balls to yell at a brawling group of cops and discriminated-against Irish Travellers (called “Gypsies” here). But that’s not the case with Sister MC. She may need occasional reminders from Sister Julienne about tucking all of her hair behind her wimple, but this nun has no qualms about laying down the law if it means keeping her patients (a middle-aged Traveller woman on her 11th pregnancy, her 16-year-old niece, who recently gave birth to her first child, and their family’s dying matriarch) out of danger: “No evictions and no transfers to hospital are going to take place until I give my permission!” she informs the gathered police who want to empty out the Travellers’ camp. “Do you understand?” Um, Sister Evangelina? I think you can retire now. MC’s got things well in hand.

Episode Recaps

Call the Midwife

Set in the 1950s, this BBC period drama (which airs on PBS stateside) follows nurse midwives working on the East End of London.

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