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Unsung 1950s midwives deliver ratings that put Sherlock to shame

Sunday night blockbusters play second fiddle to BBC's unlikely hit, says Adam Sherwin

Whenever television commissioners need a fresh dose of life-saving drama the call has traditionally gone out for dashing doctors and handsome vets. Now the Royal College of Midwives is braced for a rush of applicants after the success of a BBC drama which has placed medicine's "unsung heroes" firmly in the spotlight.

Call The Midwife, which follows the grim toils of a young midwife working alongside nuns in London's East End in the 1950s, is a Sunday-night hit. Its opening episode last week drew eight million viewers, more than the final episode of Sherlock, which pulled in 7.9 million. It comfortably beat ITV's rival offering, Dancing On Ice.

Hopes were high that the second installment, featuring the comedian Miranda Hart, would deliver similar results for the BBC, which launched an adaptation of the Sebastian Faulks novel, Birdsong, last night.

The TV series is adapted from the memoir of Jennifer Worth, who became a midwife in 1957 when she joined the Anglican convent of the Sisters of St John the Divine. She died of cancer last year, but gave the series full support. The book Call The Midwife, published in 2002, yesterday topped the Sunday Times bestseller chart.

The TV show follows nurse Jenny, played by newcomer Jessica Raine, who negotiates a world of bomb-damaged buildings and East End slums to bring safe childbirth to the women of Poplar. It 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 which might not have seemed 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."

Heidi 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 currently available to work within the service, there are around 10 applicants for each available place, Ms Warwick said.

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

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

Call The Midwife was made by Neal Street Productions, a company that is co-founded by Sam Mendes, the film and theatre director.

Pippa Harris, executive producer, said: "We're delighted to hear that Call the Midwife has reached number one in the bestsellers list.

"Together with the TV series, the public has taken the residents of Nonnatus House and Poplar to their hearts. It's a fitting tribute to Jennifer Worth's legacy," Pippa Harris added.