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The bigger picture

Midwives magazine: Issue 3 :: 2012

The television adaptation of Call the Midwife has been praised by the critics and lapped up by the public. But can a period drama actually have an effect on midwifery today? Rob Dabrowski investigates…

The bigger picture
Frozen mashed potato is not a glamorous product, but four years ago sales of the stodgy convenience food soared to an all-time high. The supermarket chain Asda saw an increase of 1500% in March 2008, after which sales fell off every bit as quickly as they rose.

The reason for the prolific – if short-lived – rise was the ‘Delia effect’: television cook Delia Smith used the ingredient on her programme How to Cheat at Cooking and immediately it was making a stir.

This talismanic ability isn’t limited to Delia – there are numerous examples of the pervasive impact of television and film… from sales of berets rocketing in 1967 when Bonnie and Clyde hit cinemas, to the nation knocking back more malt whisky after American TV series Mad Men garnered a cult UK following.

Now we have Call the Midwife. The BBC expected solid ratings when they scheduled the series to be beamed into the nation’s homes in the prime-time Sunday night slot. But it defied all predictions to become the most successful new drama series since the BBC began its ratings system in 2001.

Call the Midwife has had a huge impact with audiences,’ BBC One controller Danny Cohen says. ‘It’s a very high-quality drama series from a brilliant team. It manages to be hard-hitting and emotional, gritty and warm.’

This ‘huge impact’ is being felt outside the confines of the television screen. The London Evening Standard’s fashion editor, Karen Dacre, says: ‘Sunday evening hit Call the Midwife has taught the capital a thing or two about style – with everything from the curls to the collars now a major trend.’

There’s also a buzz around replica vintage bikes, which feature heavily in the programme and its publicity shots. Halfords received record pre-orders for its new traditional cycle designs, with demand so high that the range was brought into the shops a month early.   

‘It is all being put down to the midwife-effect,’ says a Halfords spokesperson. ‘Their nostalgic appeal seems to have released a desire by women to return to cycling, which has been spurred on by the pedalling midwives of the 1950s show.’

Jennifer Worth
Jennifer Worth
The area that has had the biggest knock-on effect is publishing. Jennifer Worth’s book Call the Midwife spent February as Amazon’s bestseller, with her other two books from the trilogy charting at six and seven.

All three even managed to top the current craze for Scandinavian crime novels, easily outselling Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbø, who have dominated the bestsellers lists and caused a smorgasbord of other Scandinavian novels to come to prominence, making ‘Scando-crime’ books as ubiquitous as Ikea’s flat-pack furniture. 

On the back of Call the Midwife, a similar phenomenon is now emerging, with The Midwife’s Here! by Linda Fairley, Tales of a Midwife by Maria Anderson, Catching Babies: A Midwife’s Tale by Sheena Byrom and a reissue of the One Born Every Minute book, among others, all recently published and out now.

And, just before Midwives went to press, a publisher secured the rights to two coffee table companion books to Call the Midwife, the first of which is set to be published this November.   

Neill Denny, editor-in-chief of the Bookseller, thinks Call the Midwife has ‘really struck a nerve’. ‘I remember seeing a presentation on the book before it was published and realising there was something different about it,’ he says.

‘It was written with real panache and works on a literary level, as well as a medical memoir, and this kind of success always leads to other publishers moving into the same area.
‘Suddenly other similar books get exposure that they wouldn’t have had,’ he continues. ‘Like the “Scando-crime” books, which already existed, but were given a big boost by Stieg Larsson and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

‘These things are slow to arrive, but they are slow to disappear too. The TV series of Call the Midwife has had a major impact on the public psyche and I think there’s a real thirst for the topic, which I’d say will be around for some years to come.’  

Linda Fairley
Linda Fairley
Linda Fairley, 64, is one of the longest serving midwives in the UK and has been practising for more than 40 years since starting on New Year’s Day, 1970. Her book The Midwife’s Here! covers the early years of her career and she’s now writing the follow-up, due for release at the end of this year.    

‘I hadn’t read any medical or midwifery memoirs, other than Call the Midwife, before I started writing,’ she says. ‘I think the television series has most certainly helped raise the profile of my book, along with One Born Every Minute, which I don’t think is a completely accurate portrayal of midwifery (please see page 21 for an interview with Gail, the team manager from the latest series) but it has raised the profile.  

‘I think the public interest can really help midwifery as there have always been a lot of girls interested in the profession, but who maybe think they can’t do it,’ she continues. ‘I think the programmes on television and the books have encouraged people and it’s a really good thing for the profession.’

While there may a boost for public profile and interest in midwifery, is there actually a tangible, positive impact for the profession? And are there any lessons that can be learnt today by revisiting midwifery in the smog-filled 1950s East End? Terri Coates, professional midwifery advisor on the series, says: ‘I hope that Call the Midwife has done what I had always hoped it could – portray midwives and midwifery in a positive way.

Maria Anderson
Maria Anderson
‘In Jennifer Worth’s stories midwifery has found its own James Herriot.’

Just as James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small resulted in a surge in admissions for veterinary college, so the impact has been felt in midwifery. As reported in Midwives, UCAS revealed that midwifery training applications are up by a fifth on the back of the series. But, with midwifery bursaries available, and university fees sky-high, some believe that this should be taken with a pinch of salt.  

New president of the RCM, Lesley Page, thinks that, while obviously not an accurate reflection of modern practice, the series paints a positive picture and delivers important messages for today. 

‘It could be a basis for learning about respecting women and the importance of being in and of the community,’ she says. ‘The world has changed, but do we (and could we) reflect these values in our modern pressurised services?’

Kate Brintworth, assistant to the LSA midwifery officer for London, says: ‘My mother was a midwife from the same era as Call the Midwife and, from her point of view, it is slightly sanitised – a Cath Kidston version of how things were.

Sheena Byrom
Sheena Byrom
‘But it shows midwives getting on with things and normalises birth with midwives out in the community, which is a positive image. It shows birth as a normal and natural event, rather than a medicalised event, which is something that government reports have been driving for.

‘I think it raises the profile of midwifery and midwives as independent strong women who go out there and get things done. But I think anyone who decides to become a midwife after watching the programme will be surprised at how medicalised and institutionalised the profession has become.’

There have, of course, been questions raised about the accuracy of specific aspects of the series. For example, in the 1950s, ‘centimetres’ and ‘weeks’ were not commonly used as – midwives would normally discuss ‘inches’ and ‘months’ (please see page 28).

But, while the minutia may not always be historically accurate – how did they find time to deliver babies in between eating all that cake? – the overall impression has been positive, with the series praised by both midwives and the general public. 

Is it idealistic to think that with midwifery cemented firmly in the public consciousness, politicians are more likely to address the pressing issues that the profession faces? In short, ‘yes’, RCM deputy general secretary Louise Silverton thinks it is idealistic, but she does believe that Call the Midwife will have an impact.    

‘If the general public see midwifery in a positive light, then they are going to ask questions locally to their politicians and that will keep the issue on the agenda,’ she says.

Maria Dore and Ros Bradbury
Maria Dore and Ros Bradbury
‘And maybe women will be more accepting of midwife-led care. If you don’t know anything about midwifery then you might think that you need to see a doctor. But what Call the Midwife shows is that midwives can manage and the programme depicts midwife-led care in the community and care that is woman-centred.’

But can the positive boost for the profession last? Delia’s endorsement of frozen mash caused a month-long sales surge, before demand for soft prunes (used in her following series) shot through the roof and the product became the latest flavour of the month.

Is the same to happen to midwifery? After its moment in the sun, will the profession fade from public memory to be replaced by whatever profession the BBC commissioners decide to make the subject of their next prime-time series?

Hopefully not – filming for the second series starts in June and negotiations are currently underway for an unprecedented contract for eight more series of the drama.

If the BBC can persuade the stars and producers to sign on the dotted line, we will have midwives on the small screen for almost another decade. Unlike Delia’s frozen mash, it looks like midwifery’s profile boost will be more than just a flash in the pan.