Call the Midwife, a British series currently airing on PBS—the season finale is on Sunday—is often difficult to watch. Its portrayal of midwives working in a rough London neighborhood in the 1950s is unsparing in its depiction of poverty, the pain and dangers of childbirth, the way people who mean the best can do the worst. It is also oddly addictive.
Based on the memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife is not merely grim. It is often downright joyous, showing the happiness and relief that comes with the birth of a healthy baby even when the circumstances aren’t perfect. The characters—young midwives, the nuns who are training them, and their clients—are almost all complex and engaging. One, however, steals the show. It’s not Worth herself—then known as Nurse Jenny Lee—but the clumsy, giant, posh Camilla Fortescue Cholomondley-Browne, known as Chummy.
Chummy, who joins the cast in the show’s second episode, is played by the quirky and wonderful Miranda Hart. Her height and heft seem to give her more body parts to tangle and trip over—especially when she learns to ride a bicycle, the midwife’s standard mode of transportation. She is as awkward and unsure of herself socially as she is physically—in the book, Worth describes her as “pathetically eager to be liked.” The daughter of several generations of British civil servants in India, Chummy was raised in boarding schools and occasionally palled around with the royals. Princess Margaret is “frightfully vivacious when she's had a gin,” Chummy tells her shocked fellow midwives, then hastens to add that she hasn’t “really seen her since Pa's investiture.”
But the posh fish in the plebian pond is warm, too, and her open, kindly discomfort endears her to patients, to the other midwives, to a local boy who takes it upon himself to protect her from those rough children who would taunt her—even to the police officer she runs into while learning to ride a bike.
Chummy sees her work as a means to becoming a missionary. “I feel I’ve been called to work in Africa by God,” she says. But she wants love, too. “One hopes there might be some sort of a chap along the way,” she says. And one of the most delightful story lines in Call the Midwife is her shy flirtation with the policeman she nearly ran over—a budding relationship facilitated by an eye-rolling nun. When faced with the prospect of going to a dance with her bobby, Hart plays Chummy’s nervous excitement perfectly—for all of the character’s warmth and happiness, you can hear the echo of a thousand embarrassing moments when she sighs, “One has so many horrific memories.”
Though Worth’s Call the Midwife is billed—along with its two sequels—as a memoir, there is not a little fiction in the book, and the show as well. Chummy, alas, appears not to have been real, according to nuns at the convent where Worth served. That breaks my heart a little. I want Chummy to have existed, because someone like her makes the world seem a little more jolly and interesting and less predictable. But if she heard me say that, she would no doubt tell me, “Buck up, what.”