Call the Midwife Christmas Special, review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Traversing a mixture of Christmas schmaltz and hard-hitting history, the BBC drama takes us to an institution for unmarried mothers

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The Independent Culture

This was the third consecutive Call The Midwife Christmas special, not quite a yuletide institution, but established enough that it comes with expectations: at least one drama-fuelled birth, a social history lesson, and to be left with a warm fuzzy feeling – not just as a result of festive over-indulgence. This episode delivered, if with a sprinkling of mawkishness, but we’ll let it off because if there’s a time for sickly sweet, it’s today.

Before a sweet ending, though, there has to be hardship. The Nonnatus House residents – now minus Jessica Raine’s Jenny Lee who pedalled off into the sunset at the end of series three – specialise in helping those less fortunate than themselves, so the series and so-called horrible history are natural bed fellows.

In this special, the spotlight was on homes for unmarried mothers; a Victorian invention that still was common practice in the 50s and 60s. Girls were sent to such institutions to conceal their “shame” from society and to wait for their baby to be born and adopted, without their having much, or any, choice.

The stars of Call the Midwife in the BBC 2014 Christmas special

Tonight, in an authentic view of the time, we see the midwives showing approval of such an approach. "By all accounts it’s absolutely splendid…the matron runs it like a proper home from home,” says Chummy of Astor Lodge, the rather grand-sounding institution, before encouraging her charges to exit via the side entrance of the clinic to avoid been seen by the other married mums-to-be.

As the young girls, Avril (defiant, bitter) and Denise (resigned) faced their fate, the gin-soaked matron proves almost Dickensian in her cruelty. We see her arranging a child to be taken away without giving the distraught mother time to say goodbye, forcing wedding bands onto girls in labour to “save blushes” and leaving ill residents without medical treatment.

The series is meticulously researched, but given that the material now comes mostly from the writers, rather than from Jenny Lee’s memoirs, the matron we are introduced to is bordering on caricature. However, the pantomime villain serves her purpose. Feisty Avril reports her to Nonnatus House and Chummy (of course!) saves the day despite getting snowed in by the obligatory in Christmas special snowstorm. Childbirth is a leveller and laid bare, tough Avril admits her past as a Barnardos “bastard”: ‘I just wanted a home, with a small H, not a capital letter."

Tonight's drama serves to remind us what a fine actor Miranda Hart is. The scenes where she encourages an exhausted Avril to hold her soon-to-be-adopted baby brought a lump to this reviewer's throat which was definitely not caused by OD-ing on Christmas pudding. 

Miranda Hart as Chummy in the Christmas Call The Midwife

Proceedings were not entirely Jenny Lee-less either... Vanessa Redgrave who does the voice-over for the series, appears at the beginning as an elderly Jenny, somehow adding to the festiveness by her mere presence.  Elsewhere there were some welcome flashes of comedy, not least from the eccentric, mercurial Sister Monica Joan, in early stages of dementia, who says: “I require a tree, it should neither be too slender nor too squat, equal symmetry and smell pleasingly of pine”. And it being Christmas in a covent, Christianity was never off the agenda. The episode followed Cynthia agonising over whether to join the order.

The Christmas special left us, as it should do, with a sense that all is right with the world. We viewers sitting on the sofa can reflect on our own homes with a small h and bath in that warm fuzzy feeling. How the next series will go without Jessica Raine remains to be seen, but if this installment is anything to go by, it will be business as usual at Nonnatus House.