For Christmas this year, the BBC decided to gift most of the cast of Call the Midwife with a really nice working holiday. It’s off to South Africa for everyone except for Patsy and Cynthia, who are apparently left behind to tend to every pregnant woman in Poplar while the others travel waaaay south for several weeks to work at a mission hospital.
Here’s what’s going on: the mission, which is supported by Nonnatus’s mother house, has recently lost its head nun, Sister Felicity, and is in danger of being shut down. The logical solution to this is to send Julienne, Winifred, Trixie, Barbara, the adult Turners, Crane, Fred, and Tom to remote South Africa to help out and hold a polio vaccine clinic. And Tom’s going to be carrying out an assessment of the place which will ultimately determine whether or not it gets to stay open.
Sister Julienne: I’m not going to tell you to lie, of course, but just remember that the entire fate of this place, the only centre for medical care for miles around, rests with you and this report. No pressure! But seriously, don’t screw this up.
So off they go, Trixie dressing and acting like Elizabeth Taylor embarking on the Queen Mary, because of course she does. Every excursion out of Poplar is exotic for Trixie, unless the proposed destination is Newcastle.
They arrive and find the place even more primitive than they thought. Fred comes to grips with an ancient truck that’s become some sort of Frankenstein-mobile it’s got so many random components in it. Turner tries really hard not to lock horns with the resident doctor, a tough but pretty amazing woman named Fitzsimmons. Crane delivers a baby under a banyan tree (with Fred’s help)! Shelagh is menaced by some goats on the way to the post office! Winifred’s a redhead, so she starts burning as soon as she even thinks about the sun! Trixie’s mascara runs endlessly and she can’t set her hair! (Honestly, I love Trixie, but sometimes she really does come across as a shallow idiot. I mean, what part of ‘we’re going to a remote mission church run by nuns in South Africa’ made her think, ‘Awesome! Lay in extra bikinis and setting solution!’ But it’s ok, because she gets to be amazing later and wins us all back to #TeamTrixie.)
Oh, and Apartheid sucks. It’s not as massively in-your-face as it could be, but it’s definitely there. A trio of white policemen crop up a couple of times to be jerks and yell at two black patients for hanging out after hours with the nurses. One of those patients, Roza, used to work as a secretary in the city, before some draconian permit laws made it impossible for her to get to the office anymore. Now, the only way she can have anything to do or win any status is to give birth. Fortunately, after a decade of marriage, she’s pregnant at last. And she’s so sweet you know something terrible’s going to happen to her. Same with Constance, the other woman scolded by the police. She lost her last two babies but remains incredibly optimistic and cheerful.
Early heartbreak comes to the polio vaccine clinic. Two little boys show up, with the older one carrying the younger, having walked miles to get there. The elder desperately tells Turner that he has some money, and if it’s not enough to get them both vaccinated, he just wants his younger brother to get the vaccine, so he can be cured of the polio he’s already had. Ooof. Turner gently explains that they don’t have to pay anything (a notion that clearly baffles this poor kid) and that the vaccine can’t cure anyone of polio, it’s to prevent them from getting it in the first place. He feels terrible he can’t do anything for these kids.
Everyone’s having trouble adjusting (well, except for Crane, because she takes everything as it comes, and that’s really amazing of her). Barbara, who’s desperate to help, as always, goes up against Fitzsimmons, who, in her frustration, starts yelling at a woman who keeps bringing sick grandbabies to the hospital. The kids are being fed gruel (in infancy!) and hygiene’s not great at home, though clearly this woman’s trying to do all she can. But she’s taking care of babies for daughters who have to go out and work miles from home and obviously can’t come back so often. It’s not a great situation. But Barbara intervenes, offers to take care of this sick kid, sends Fitzsimmons away to cool down, and comforts the distressed grandmother. Barbara’s wonderful.
But even she has limits. When Roza goes into labour, Barbara and Trixie go to tend to her. It’s been three days since her pains started, and the girls exchange that look you never want them to exchange, because it means bad news. Trixie checks out the patient, then quickly excuses herself. Barbara follows her outside and guesses there’s no heartbeat. Trixie, shakily smoking a cigarette, tells her there’s no baby and never was. This is a phantom pregnancy, brought about because this woman has nothing else in her life to look forward to. Trixie’s shaken, so Barbara (again!) steps up and breaks the news to the mother. Roza, understandably, is distraught, but Barbara manages to comfort her very impressively. Later, though, on an excursion to the beach, Barbara has a bit of a meltdown, shaming everyone for having a nice day out when their patients have such miserable lives, and reminding them all that they’ll get to go home, to London, but these people will remain where and as they are. These folk will leave nothing behind as they return to their lives of privilege.
Everyone else: You totally have a point, but did you have to harsh our day-off buzz?
But Trixie pulls Tom aside and tells him that Barbara is incredibly amazing and he knows he adores her and really should get his act together and propose already. And when he does, don’t give Barbara the same ring he gave Trixie (should go without saying, no?). It’s a family heirloom, but Barbara’s lived her entire life in hand-me-downs and should, just once, get something that’s all her own.
Tom’s got his hands full, though. The water situation at the hospital is dire, and getting worse. Their source is terrible and full of clay, producing very little murky water. There’s another, better source not far away, but in order to access it, they have to go through land belonging to a Mr Starke. Not this guy, sadly:
but rather some bitter man who spends his days rearranging his photo albums. Fitzsimmons tried once to get access to the land but was rudely turned away. When Tom shows up to give it another go, he finds a black servant out front watering the lawn (so we’re really primed to hate this guy) and gets no further than Fitzsimmons did. At this point, you figure this man’s either a complete monster or he lost a loved one/s at that hospital and has been holding a grudge ever since. Which still makes him a monster, because punishing innocent women and children because you have a beef with their doctor is horrifically shitty. Still: white asshole: 1, Black mothers and babies: 0.
But even if the hospital gets water, they’ve got a big problem: Fitzsimmons has liver cancer, and it’s not looking too good. But Turner, as always, is determined to figure something out, so he consults some texts and starts to think that maybe she doesn’t have liver cancer after all. He thinks she has an abscess that needs draining, which turns out to be true, and she has him drain it without giving her any anaesthetic at all, because they don’t have much and she wants to save it for the mothers who need c-sections. This woman’s a hero. The thing gets drained, but she takes a turn for the worse and Turner packs her into the truck to take her to Port Elizabeth to see if he can convince the hospital there to give her some experimental drugs.
While he’s gone, Julienne sees all the men desperately trying to dig for more water and decides to approach Starke herself, having gotten the man’s full story from Fitzsimmons. As expected, he had a wife whom he loved very much, and she went into labour early, so they called for Fitzsimmons. But the baby didn’t live long, and the wife quickly succumbed to puerperal fever. He blamed Fitzsimmons and her filthy patients for bringing disease into his house. I’m really sorry that happened to you, Starke, but again, denying women and babies water is pretty evil. Julienne manages not to say as much, but she does tell him she feels really sorry for him and will be praying. Also: babies and mothers need that damn water.
She gets back to the hospital and is met by grim-faced Barbara and Trixie, who really aren’t catching any breaks on this trip. Constance is in labour now, and it’s not going well. Trixie asks for a third opinion, and Julienne examines the mother and agrees that this is going to end disastrously for everyone. The mother needs a c-section, or her uterus is going to rupture.
Trixie: Ok, then let’s do a c-section!
That is seriously her reaction. Julienne reminds her that there is no doctor around, that none of them are trained in that procedure (which, let’s be clear, is major abdominal surgery) and this is a desperately bad idea. Trixie says that she’s seen the procedure done dozens of times, has assisted and even done post-op. She’s sure she can get this done. I genuinely applaud her confidence, but that’s a little like someone saying, ‘Yeah, don’t worry, I can totally defuse that bomb with a shoelace, I used to watch MacGuyver all the time. And I read a couple of Wikipedia articles. It’ll be fine!’
Julienne hesitates, but Trixie points out that, if they do nothing, they’ll be burying two people in the morning. At least this gives them a (slim, let’s admit) chance of a good outcome. Julienne can’t argue with that, so the operation’s on.
Oh, and they can only use gas and air and local anaesthetic because they’re not equipped for general anaesthesia. Fun times!
The procedure goes forward, with Trixie in the driver’s seat. When she goes to retrieve the baby, however, she finds it’s a bit stuck, because it’s already in the birth canal. She has Barbara reach up the birth canal and push the baby back into the womb so Trixie can get it out. And get it out she does. Baby and mother are saved. Trixie is AWESOME.
Afterwards, Starke swings by and finds Julienne cuddling the newborn. He asks why she’s not giving it a bath and she coolly tells him it’s because they have no goddamn water for frivolous things like baths for newly born babies. They barely have enough to drink! And just like that his last defenses crumble and now he loves the hospital and all therein! Eh, I don’t buy that. This guy’s been holding a wicked grudge for at least a decade now, and just like that he’s ok? No. But, this is a Christmas special, so we can’t go getting too complicated.
Time to wrap things up. Fitzsimmons is going to be ok! She gets back to the hospital, ready to continue her work. Starke allows the access to his land, so the hospital gets its water! Barbara goes to deliver some celebratory cake to Tom as they get ready to access the new source, and he impulsively (and adorably) plucks a long blade of grass, fashions a ring out of it, and proposes. Tom and Barbara 4EVA!
Roza is hired to be the hospital’s administrator, giving her purpose once more! Constance and her baby are fine and healthy!
And Shelagh, in a delightfully unexpected callback to Christmas specials past, has Timothy’s old leg braces shipped down from London. They’re fitted on that little boy from earlier, so he can walk again. So sweet! And now the Nonnatuns can return from their South African sojurn, having truly felt like they made a difference.
Damn you, Christmas specials.
I’ll admit, this was really just ok. Heartwarming in the right places, yes, but the bit with Starke felt forced, and the police popping up twice were kind of random. We didn’t need them to remind us that apartheid sucked, we were already getting that message through the characters who mattered to the story. I wished they’d either been ditched altogether or actually made a part of the plot. But, whatever, I’ll take that because we also got Trixie’s moment of amazing (and wouldn’t it be interesting if this made her start thinking that surgery is an option for a career? I realise the medical community wasn’t terribly welcoming to women in the 1960s, but still–that girl’s incredible if she could do that after having only watched it be done before) and Tom and Barbara, and that sweet little boy walking. Awww!
Merry Christmas, everybody.