Last night's viewing - The Midwives, BBC2; Networks of Power with Sir Christopher Meyer, Sky Atlantic


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The Independent Culture

On the one hand, you have the Olympics opening ceremony, in which NHS nurses are beaming angels of mercy who think it's an absolute lark when the patients bounce on the beds.

On the other hand, you have the NHS, where an expectant mother is quite likely to meet Jill, heading up triage on a busy maternity ward and in no mood to indulge what she sees as self-indulgence: "I know she's in pain," Jill said in weary tones to someone pleading for leeway on the phone, "of that there's no doubt. But she needs to have more pain before she's properly in labour." I don't know who was on the other end of the phone, but I think "she" was Lindsay, who'd turned up wanting a nice quiet maternity suite that Jill wasn't yet inclined to give her. And the gap between stadium health-care worker and this stern, real-world equivalent wasn't as great as it might first appear, I think. It wasn't that Jill didn't care. It was just that she was very experienced and knew she might need the space for a really urgent case.

The Midwives couldn't more conspicuously be an "us too" commission if they'd called it "One Born Every Two Minutes". The fact that Channel 4's series about midwifery has been a steady ratings success obviously hasn't escaped attention elsewhere. But whereas that's filmed with multiple fixed cameras, BBC2's documentary is a more conventional affair and concentrates on the deliverers not the delivered. I might as well confess now that the success of these things is a mystery to me, consisting as they do of a virtually unvarying sequence of women in distress and men looking miserable, until suddenly a tiny, gore-splashed Winston Churchill appears and all is joy and tears. In my own experience, the delivery room was at once the most terrifying and most tedious place I've ever been obliged to spend time and I have no wish to relive the experience by proxy. But I quite understand I may not be representative here.

This first episode did offer a slightly more melancholy take on the experience, with at least two couples who'd lost babies before and were therefore even more on edge about their coming births than you might normally be. And in two cases, there were complications, so that the parents had to endure that most terrifying noise, the sound of doctors conferring under their breath. That, I guess, is the durable attraction of such programmes: the vertiginous contrasts between just another day at work for the midwives and a day that people will remember for the rest of their lives, for good reasons and bad.

In Networks of Power with Sir Christopher Meyer, the former ambassador visited Rome, where he promised to "grapple with the dark machiavellian heart of politics". The thing about dark machiavellian hearts, of course, is that they never let mere television presenters even get within touching distance, so instead Meyer schmoozed with some of the city's power-brokers and came to no very revealing conclusion, apart from the fact that quite a lot of what goes on in that city goes on under the table. I hope he was a bit more forensic and a bit less diplomatic when he was working for Her Majesty.

The head of the Knights of Malta, a chuckling self-satisfied fellow in a quilted jacket, denied that the organisation was wealthy: "There's enough to put bread on the table," he said modestly, without Meyer calling him out on this ludicrous understatement. Then again, he'd only got the interview through the old girl network, after an old schoolfriend of his wife had put a word in for him, so there was a sense that he was as much poacher as gamekeeper here. You'd also have to hope he was less reliant on cliché when filing dispatches back to Whitehall, just for his readers' sake.