Call the Midwife review: a heartfelt, slightly madcap crowd-pleaser

The festive season at Nonnatus House is as chaotic and sweet as ever

Katie Rosseinsky
Monday 25 December 2023 21:49 GMT
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This Christmas special is packed to the rafters with storylines and characters, not unlike a festive dinner
This Christmas special is packed to the rafters with storylines and characters, not unlike a festive dinner (BBC / Neal Street Productions)

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If the run-up to Christmas and all its attendant admin has left you exhausted, count your blessings: at least you didn’t volunteer to organise an old-fashioned nativity tableau, complete with a squealing newborn baby and actual livestock. That’s exactly the task that the nuns and nurses of Nonnatus House sign themselves up for during this festive edition of BBC One’s Call the Midwife – as if their hands weren’t already full enough helping the expectant mothers of the East End. 

Why are they so focused on fussing over custom-made mangers and whipping up costumes? Because the venerable Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) has decreed that, as she is now well into her nineties, this Christmas will be her last on this earth. She’s not even that fussed about living to see the outcome of the space race. Dr Turner (Stephen McGann) is convinced that she is depressed; to lift her from the doldrums, her friends set to work recreating a series of Christmas memories from her Victorian girlhood.

Of course, that’s just one of many, many storylines crammed into this 90-minute episode. You don’t have to be a habitual Call the Midwife viewer to enjoy its annual Christmas special, now the centrepiece of the BBC’s seasonal schedule. You do, however, need to brace for an onslaught of plot and a barrage of characters (when will I ever learn to properly tell the nuns apart? It’s been more than a decade since the show began, and yet here I am, still dealing with an acute form of coif blindness).

Some of the action is topical, like the Turner children’s obsession with the Apollo 8 mission, grounding the action in the winter of 1968, and the nods toward advances in fertility technology (“Things are going to be different now that science is involved,” Dr Turner sagely remarks after a particularly eventful delivery). Some is issue-driven, like the narrative involving an evicted tenant who won’t leave his water-logged residence (Call the Midwife has an admirable track record when it comes to foregrounding housing issues, shining a light on the present through its exploration of the past). 

There are a few B-plots shoe-horned in for comic purposes, too. Little Teddy Turner is insisting on getting a tortoise for Christmas (I blame Blue Peter) – cue some inevitable confusion over whether said tortoise is hibernating or in fact dead. Meanwhile Nurse Phyllis (Linda Bassett) has been dispatched to the other side of the country on a training course, in preparation for the arrival of new recruits next season, and keeps phoning up Nonnatus HQ to share her bizarre learnings (including her thoughts on “the enema and why it has fallen out of favour”). It’s never made particularly clear why Phyllis has been siloed while the rest of the gang are hard at work on their nativity preparations, and her strange telephone non-sequiturs aren’t quite funny enough to make this storyline pull its weight.

Festive: newlywed Trixie is planning her first Christmas with husband Matthew
Festive: newlywed Trixie is planning her first Christmas with husband Matthew (BBC / Neal Street Productions / Laurence Cendrowicz)

Picking up the narrative threads from the most recent season finale, newlyweds Trixie (Helen George) and Matthew (Olly Rix) are dealing with a spot of in-law interference (which mostly takes place off stage) and trying to carve out their own Christmas traditions as a couple. All very romantic – until her brother Geoffrey (Christopher Harper) arrives unexpectedly to intrude on their bliss. Soon he is lounging on their sofa reading Tatler, making plans to move in permanently while he sets up his osteopathy clinic on Harley Street, and sourcing nativity costumes from Ealing Studios. It’s only his second appearance in the show, after debuting during Trixie’s wedding earlier this year, but Geoffrey already feels like he has the makings of a Call the Midwife fixture (if Trixie doesn’t mind him intruding in her space for a little longer).

Compared to previous specials, it’s an episode that’s light on obvious tearjerker material (although a storyline about two former school contemporaries learning to move past their differences as they both become first-time mothers is quietly moving). But for uplifting fare that’s by turns heartfelt and slightly madcap, it’s still the ultimate crowd-pleaser, a sort of televisual middle ground that the whole family can agree on. And couldn’t we all do with one less argument at Christmas?

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