Call the Midwife, BBC One, season 13, ep 1, review: a superb balance of convention and controversy

Comedian Rosie Jones guest stars in Call the Midwife
Comedian Rosie Jones guest stars in Call the Midwife - Olly Courtney/BBC
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A new series – a thirteenth, would you credit it? – of Call the Midwife (BBC One) brought with it the useful plot carbonator of a fresh intake. Pupil midwives Joyce Highland (Renee Bailey) and Rosalind Clifford (Natalie Quarry) duly trotted up to the front door of Nonnatus House and within a single episode had endured a baptism of fire like they’d been forced to give birth themselves. In a pleasing turn of the seasons, Trixie (Helen George), once the ingénue, was now the tutor.

Call the Midwife writer Heidi Thomas has always managed to juggle more storylines in one episode than most shows manage in an entire series, but this opener was still absolutely chocka. There was Joyce, from the West Indies, and Rosalind (clipped vowels; daddy a boarding-school headmaster) sharing a room and forming an instant, likeable odd couple. This being 1969, Rosalind tally-ho’d in and wanted to slap up a CND poster; Joyce, a stickler, was worried less about the political implications, more about what Sister would think of the pinholes in the wallpaper.

There was the nurses’s Raise the Roof Campaign for better pay and conditions (an obvious echo of current times) that led to what we now call “robust debate” around the Nonnatus dining table, about when is a job a vocation and not just a salary – and who decides?

And there was a wonderful, bifurcatory main plot about a concealed pregnancy and the eventual delivery of a baby at St Cuthbert’s by a mother, Doreen (Rosie Jones), who has cerebral palsy. It turned out that Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) had delivered Doreen way back when, and may have been involved in her complications. But the whole point – and Jones was superb in explaining it – was that Doreen herself didn’t see her disability as “complications” at all, and was fed up with what we now call ableism.

A lot to work through there, but as ever it was all impeccably handled by Thomas and her cast. The downside of so much story is it can feel like a thread or character you might warm to gets short shrift. The upside is if you’re less enthused by a particular character or idea, another one is soon on its way.

In that sense, Call the Midwife is one of the classiest dramas on TV – others could learn a lot from how it manages to address societal issues, stay current and yet still justifies even its most maudlin moments.

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