Part of my preparation for the role of Eliza Doolittle involved trying to find good examples of the Cockney dialect. This proved a bit difficult, particularly because the Cockney dialect of the early 20th century doesn’t really exist anymore in modern life. But one suggest from our esteemed dialect coach was to try watching Call the Midwife. Well, it’s a show set in mid-century in England with a strong female cast and a willingness to observe all classes of life, which is right up my alley, so I gave it a gander. And it has quickly become one of my favorite shows to watch when I have some downtime alone.
And apart from the obvious immersion in East End London dialect, it is a fascinating story. Briefly, the first few seasons are directly based on the memoirs of a Jennifer Worth (nee Lee), who worked as a midwife in the East End of London. My favorite part is that the show follows the stories of a class of people who have not traditionally been represented in film and television, or else represented in a romanticized way. As the show progresses, the characters take on enough of their own life to let the show stray from the original source material, especially when the main character of Jenny Lee leaves the convent at which she works. Currently, I’m in the second season, so I’m curious to see how the show handles losing the main character, but so many of the other characters are engaging enough, I imagine it will work well.
I will admit that I originally avoided this show because for some reason I thought it was a modern reality show. It is, however, a rather gritty look at the reality for women in the East End in the mid century. The show does not shy away from the harsh conditions these women have to face, and it also gave new context to the lines spoken by Eliza and her father in Pygmalion. When Mr. Doolittle says “What else is there but the workhouse in my old age” if he throws away a bequest that has been needling him into respectability, this is not a flippant remark about Doolittle’s aversion to hard work; it is an honest fear that he will end up in a place that leaves people traumatized or worse. When Eliza remarks that her old flat “wasn’t fit for a pig to live in,” she is not engaging in hyperbole. Some of the places the midwives visit seem like the sort of place you would call animal control if you saw a dog forced to live there.
By contrasting the lives of the East End patients and the lives of the midwives, the show is an interesting study of privilege. When she first comes to the convent, Nurse Lee shows her privileged ignorance when dealing with her patients. Well, no, the woman who is abused by her husband can’t necessarily leave him. And there are many other examples. The character of Chummy is a particularly fascinating look at class and privilege, as she comes from a wealthy, upper-class family and often finds herself clashing with one of the convent’s sisters over class differences, simply because she doesn’t know that others didn’t have the access to things she had growing up. But she shows no stubborn pride and is able to become both an able midwife and a relatable friend to the other characters.
I will say that I am excited that the show continues on after the departure of Nurse Lee because it really sets it up as a true ensemble cast, as opposed to a main character with an ensemble behind her, the trap that Penny Dreadful fell into, to my dismay. I look forward to continuing to enjoy this lovely series, long after Pygmalion closes and I no longer need to drop my haitches and muddy my vowels.