Midwives deliver ratings that put Sherlock to shame

Sunday night blockbusters play second fiddle to unlikely audience favourite

Whenever television commissioners need a fresh dose of life-saving drama the call has traditionally gone out for dashing doctors and handsome vets.

But now the Royal College of Midwives is braced for a rush of applicants after the success of a BBC drama that has placed medicine's "unsung heroes" firmly in the spotlight.

Call The Midwife, which follows the grim toils of a young midwife working alongside an order of nuns in the East End of London during the 1950s, has proved a Sunday-night hit for BBC 1.

Its opening episode last week attracted eight million viewers, a bigger audience than the final episode of the BBC hit Sherlock, which pulled in 7.9 million. It also comfortably beat ITV's rival offering, Dancing on Ice.

The second episode of Call the Midwife, which saw the introduction of Miranda Hart's character Chummy Browne,  averaged 8.6 million according to Broadcastnow.co.uk.

The series was adapted from the bestselling memoir of Jennifer Worth, who became a midwife in 1957 when she joined the Anglican convent of the Sisters of St John the Divine. The author died of cancer last year, but had given the series her full support.

Worth's Call The Midwife, first published in 2002, yesterday topped The Sunday Times bestseller chart.

It follows young nurse Jenny, played by newcomer Jessica Raine, who must negotiate a new world of bomb-damaged buildings and East End slums to help bring safe childbirth to the women of Poplar. The series shows women forced into births with no running water, clean bed linen or pain relief. Adapted by Cranford writer Heidi Thomas and with a cast including Hart, Jenny Agutter and Vanessa Redgrave narrating as the mature Jenny, the BBC has managed to lure viewers to subject matter that might not have appeared to be obvious ratings material.

Cathy Warwick, chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, said: "The series is having a very positive effect. It's encouraging women to see midwifery as a potential career."

Thomas described the Call The Midwife book as "a very profound social document, a depiction of a world with which we can all identify, but which has vanished from our view".

The NHS could end up with a surfeit of midwives. Although there is a shortage of those available to work within the service, there are about 10 applicants for each available place, Ms Warwick said.

While doctors and nurses tend to hog the limelight when it comes to medical dramas, midwives have consistently been under-represented.

Philippa Lowthorpe, Call The Midwife's director, said: "In birth, the midwife is forgotten. But in reality, midwives are the unsung heroes."

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