Thursday, 24 December 2015

Call the Midwife and the bleak road to Bethlehem

In Christmas Eve’s Daily Mail, Libby Purves writes a heartwarming piece about the Call the Midwife Christmas Special and how the series as a whole provides an island of emotional comfort in the cynical ocean that modern life has become.

It would be cynical of me, therefore, to point out that Purves, who predicts that BBC’s Call the Midwife’s Christmas Special will outperform ITV’s rival Downton Abbey offering, has been a BBC radio presenter since the 1970s and is using the article to curry favour with her managers.

But there’s a whole further level of cynicism to go to. Call the Midwife seems not just to be an evocation of a fondly-remembered past but also a reflection of how the Establishment works, in that it depicts middle-class professionals doling out largesse to a poverty-stricken and prejudice-ridden populace.

In fairness to the programme makers, that's not a million miles away from how the healthcare Establishment sees itself. A friend’s mother, as a staff-nurse in the 1960s, was reprimanded for “socialising with care assistants”, the latter being traditionally drawn from more working-class backgrounds as the professionals. In the 1980s as a student nurse myself, I had to endure a lecture from a ward-sister on how people from my part of Glasgow’s East End were uneducated, feckless and had too many children. Nowadays it becomes harder and harder for people of working-class backgrounds to become nurses as the entry level qualification is a degree – heaven knows why – and when was the last time you were treated by a senior doctor with an inner-city accent?

And sometimes the programme-makers’ own prejudices show through the slick production, now that the storyline has moved beyond Jennifer Worths original memoirs. For example, in the 2014 Christmas Special, we see a mother-and-baby home for unmarried mothers where the care standards are appalling. The doctor comments, “these places used to be run by charities, then they were taken over by the council”. In fact, the original National Health Service White Paper of 1944 envisaged control of services on the ground by local and borough councils, but with the 1946 National Health Service Act Aneurin Bevan expropriated the councils – and therefore the councillors and the electorates who voted for them – in order to nationalise the whole thing and place it under the control of predominantly unelected officials, ground-level services being entrusted to local health authorities, now trusts and clinical commissioning groups, which were and are almost completely outside of democratic control and oversight. The subtext of the doctor’s comment was, I think, that democracy was not the proper system from which to run services that reach out to “ordinary people”, as I believe we of the non-elite are now called.

I suppose this year’s Call the Midwife Christmas Special will provide an island of warm fuzziness in the bleak ocean of exclusion we all now founder in, and sometimes that’s what the doctor ordered. Programmes like Call the Midwife manipulate our brain chemistry to produce a sense of supported catharsis – a good cry, in other words. But sometimes it’s time to put down the tissues and see the world as it really is. As Mary and Joseph discovered on the bleak road to Bethlehem, the world is cold and unforgiving, and nobody comes to mitigate this. Sometimes the solution can only be that we have to create warmth and forgiveness by ourselves, because when nobody comes then each individual has to ponder whether it is he or she that has to act.

I hope you manage to draw what warmth and forgiveness you can from whatever source you can find this season. As the sun sets on freedom and democracy the road ahead is bleak, and I hope we find each other in the coming year. Resources A magical reminder of a time when those in need really felt cared for: As Call The Midwife is set to top Christmas Day ratings, we can learn something from a bygone era by Libby Purves, Daily Mail 24 December 2015 Call the Midwife Christmas Special 2015 BBC webpage A National Health Service White Paper of 1944 National Health Service Act, 1946

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