London, 1957. Jenny Lee, our main character, makes her way through the East End with a big suitcase, looking around and ignoring catcalls. In voiceover, Vanessa Redgrave tells us that she could have been a model, or a pianist, or something else equally glamorous, but instead she chose to become a midwife and head to the poorest area of the city, for some as yet undefined reason. As she approaches her destination, she comes across two women catfighting. It seems that the woman who has the upper hand has been stepping out with the other one’s husband. The neighbors gather to cheer, and finally a few bobbies appear and try to break it up. They continue fighting until a fierce-looking nun busts in and loudly asks which one is her patient. Wronged wife stands up and we can see she’s pretty preggo. Nun shakes her head, unsurprised either that this woman, Pearl Winston, is fighting or knocked up. Nun marches Pearl inside as Vanessa tells us that midwifery is the very stuff of life and midwives see it all. Thanks for giving us the reason for this show at the start—makes my job easier!
Jenny continues on her way, VOing that she, apparently grew up rather posh and never got outside that particular gilded cage until now. Where the heck did she train, then? A really upper-class hospital? And what on earth made her decide to go to the East End? Surely she knew that was a pretty impoverished area? She arrives at her destination—Nonnatus House—and rings the bell. The door’s opened by a nun—Sister Monica Joan, who announces that Venus and Saturn are in alignment, so it’s appropriate that Jenny should be there. She spots a plane up in the sky and wonders about it, but Jenny’s blasé. Sister MJ waves her in, asks about Jenny’s credentials (she’s recently been made a midwife), and sets off to find some hidden cake in the kitchen. Seems her fellow sisters tend to hide cakes and things from her. She finds one and she and Jenny dig in. Sister MJ keeps pushing more cake on Jenny and Jenny keeps shoveling it in until the nun in charge—Sister Julienne (played by Jenny Agutter; guess she’s really setting aside that Bond Girl past now, isn’t she?) shows up with the other nurses—Trixie Franklin and Cynthia Miller. Another nun, Sister Evangelina, bursts in and announces the cake they’d planned to serve is missing. The horror! She immediately accuses MJ, and Julienne steps in and tells one of the nurses off to find something else. Evangelina keeps scolding MJ, but she remains serene and sails out.
After tea, Jenny reports to Julienne and admits to eating half the cake. Oh, and she didn’t know she was coming to a convent, she thought it was a small private hospital. In the East End? And…really? You had absolutely no information about where you were going? That seems strange to me, even in a pre-information age era. Yet another nun, Sister Bernadette, comes in and happily announces she’s fixed one baby that was in breech position, as she unpacks some of her tools. Julienne shows Jenny the bag she’ll take with her on all her calls, which includes such delightful items as a glass rectal tube. Not for the first time am I happy not to have to give birth in the 1950’s.
Jenny bikes through the crowded streets to her first patient, Mrs. Warren, who lives in your pretty typical crowded, untidy tenement. Jenny finds a baby in a pram just hanging out in the hallway and, upstairs, a room absolutely filled with children. Jenny announces herself and the eldest tells her mother, in Spanish, that Jenny’s there. Mrs. W’s friendly and submits to her exam with the eldest daughter rather reluctantly translating. The most important thing to know about this woman is that this is her 25th kid. Jesus. And I thought Lady Emily Lennox was bad. 25 children?! How does that not kill you? Jenny tries to establish when the woman last had a period—I’m guessing somewhere around the age of 13—but the daughter’s too mortified to ask that. Honey, seriously? Your whole family lives in two tiny rooms and you have 23 younger siblings. How modest can you really be at that point?
Dad, a jovial, affectionate guy, returns home and joins his wife. He tells Jenny that, as I suspected, the woman hasn’t had a period in years, because she’s popping out the kids one after another. Jenny guesses the baby will be there in about three months or so. She tries to give them advice on diet and home hygiene, but Mr. W tells her they know all about that from all the previous pregnancies. Seriously, they could probably school Jenny on this speech at this point. And then, because he doesn’t understand the concept of hubris on TV shows, Mr. W tells Jenny they haven’t lost a baby yet, as he sweetly strokes his wife’s hair. Oh dear.
At tea with the nuns and other nurses, Jenny tells how shocked—shocked, I say!—she was by the multiple pregnancies and the mess in the house, although to be honest, it didn’t look that bad. I mean, it’s not like the place was filthy or anything, it was just about as untidy as you’d expect it to be with that many people, most of them tiny children, living there. Bernadette tells Jenny that Mrs. W was 14 years old when she had her first kid, if not younger. Apparently, Mr. W brought her back from the Spanish Civil War as a sort of living souvenir. I’d be horrified, but they do seem reasonably happy. Mr. W even stays in the room during the deliveries, which was really not done at the time.
The phone rings and Evangelina gets up and collects Jenny. As they bike to the delivery, Evangelina tells her there are many, many births one right after another in this area, and there always will be, until someone invents a magic potion to put a stop to it. Or, perhaps, a pill? And anyway, in a sense, there was something to put a stop to it—contraceptive devices were available in the 50’s and married women could access them. The nuns aren’t Catholic, they’re stated as being Anglican, which I thought was a religion that was ok with birth control, but maybe they weren’t in the 50’s and that’s why this hasn’t been mentioned.
They arrive at their destination and are ushered in by the laboring mother’s mother, who’s clearly been down this road many, many times before. A gaggle of neighbors and, I guess, the dad are gathered downstairs. Upstairs, no-nonsense (nunsense?) Evangelina tells the young mother that it’ll only be the midwives, the mother-to-be, and her mother in the delivery room, something the young woman’s grateful for. We quickly learn that this is the girl’s fourth kid, at the ripe old age of 23, and someone complains about the chimney not working properly. Foreshadowing!
They give the girl an enema, and as Jenny goes to get rid of the result, the dad asks if that’s the afterbirth. When he learns it’s not, he asks her to bring it to him when it comes so he can use it to fertilize his tomato plants. Waste not, want not! Also, for some reason, this little matter-of-fact exchange and Jenny’s bewildered expression cracked me up every time I saw this.
Upstairs, the mother (Muriel) tiredly complains that she’s over this. The midwives and her mother help her through her water breaking, and when she goes to change the sheets, Jenny’s shocked to find newspaper under the sheet. Evangelina says that’s to save on laundry and preserve the mattress. Seems pretty sensible to me, but Jenny can’t even be bothered to hide her disgust, which makes me want to slap her. What a little snot. Who cares if there’s newspaper underneath the sheet?
Labor continues and finally the baby—a boy!—is born and it’s admirably gross. No Hollywood dressing up here. Jenny weeps for joy, and then a huge amount of soot comes rushing down the chimney, coating everyone in the room and choking them. Once they get their bearings, they check on the baby and find him just fine and fast asleep. Everyone laughs and bonds and they cut the cord and I guess Muriel’s husband’s tomatoes are going to be lovely this year.
That night, Jenny joins her fellow nurses in their little sitting room/kitchen and once again complains about the conditions. Seriously, Jenny, what were you expecting? You had to know you weren’t exactly heading to Belgravia. The other nurses commiserate and comment that Evangelina never turns a hair, but that’s because she grew up super poor.
There’s a knock on the door and in comes Fred, the handyman and sometime small business owner. Trixie explains that he has a number of side businesses, a few of which are legal. He departs and Cynthia compliments Jenny’s hands. Trixie tells them she has a crazy fantasy of getting a manicure someday, but she can’t yet, because there’s work to be done.
Doris Day sings about Que Sera, Sera over a little montage of people in the neighborhood and midwives going about their business. The girls set up a regular ante- and post-natal clinic at Nonnatus House and tend to their patients, who smoke, let their kids feed the nurses biscuits (which is actually fairly cute), and learn they’re expecting twins (in one case).
Jenny returns to the Warren home, where Mr. W is cutely entertaining the kids as Mrs. W sets out dinner. They invite Jenny to stay and she sits down and is promptly shocked (shocked, I say!) when everyone just grabs a spoon and starts eating out of one big communal pot instead of having plates like civilized people. Jesus, Jenny, could you imagine doing the dishes for a family of 26?
Later, Jenny’s worrying that Mrs. W might be preeclampsic, though Mr. W dismisses it because Sister Bernadette claims you can’t have preeclampsia after your second pregnancy. Riiiiight. Jenny suggests that Mrs. W lie down every day for an hour, to relieve her swollen ankles, and Mr. W says he’ll get the eldest to tell her, because he doesn’t speak Spanish and Mrs. W doesn’t speak English. Right, because why would two married people need to actually communicate with words? And why should she need to speak the language of the country she lives in? Apparently they speak the language of luv, so they think they’re fine.
Mums with babies line up for the clinic. Muriel’s there with her latest, who’s wearing a really adorable hat that I desperately want the knitting pattern for. She smiles a bit frigidly at Pearl, who clomps in and tells Muriel to send the baby’s hat her way when her baby’s head gets too big for it. Instead of answering, Muriel notices that Pearl’s toddler just peed all over the floor and is now stomping around and playing in the puddle. With bare feet. Pearl practically shrugs and is like, whatever. Potty training, you know? Muriel is appropriately horrified.
Jenny calls Pearl back and she waddles off, telling Muriel to keep an eye on her pissy kid. Behind the curtain, she drops her drawers, totally grossing Jenny out, lies down on the table, and comments that she has some shocking discharge, which I guess explains Jenny’s reaction to the pants. Jenny starts the exam and gets about a second into it before she goes from disgusted to serious and asks if Pearl’s aware “of this”. She’s got a lump down under, and she knows about it and is totally chill because she can’t even reach it now. Oh, come on, is this woman supposed to be believable? I mean, being completely blasé about your kid peeing at will and playing in it is bad enough, but also just essentially saying, “Syph? Eh, whatever,” is dumb. Are we later going to find out she’s got some severe mental problems along with everything else? Because that’s the only thing that can really explain this in a way I’d find credible. Looking like she’s going to throw up, Jenny rips off her gloves and dashes off to scrub her hands like crazy. Julienne finds her at the sink and says it looks like Pearl’s got syphilis, all right. Has she been hanging out with Juan? Jenny couldn’t care less about Pearl; she’s more concerned about herself and whether she’s now at risk. Julienne says she won’t catch anything, but Jenny’s on a tear and spits that she can’t believe Pearl knew that thing was there and didn’t even care. Julienne says Pearl isn’t used to caring, or being cared about. I’d believe that. Still doesn’t totally explain her attitude, though. Julienne goes on to say that when she was new, she found it difficult to conquer her revulsion. Jenny says she didn’t know people lived like this. Really? How sheltered can someone training to be a nurse be?
Jenny bikes home and finds Fred fixing something in the kitchen. There’s some talk about smog coming in and the temperature dropping. That night, she’s woken by Sister MJ, who has some snowdrops, I think, roots and all. She hands them to Jenny and desperately tells her that there’s a frost coming in threatening to kill everything, and Jenny has to save these plants, because the demise of something so newly created goes against their calling. Jenny just gives her a fairly awesome WTF? face, not that I blame her, because this is a bit of crazy right here. MJ shuffles off.
The smog’s come in thick—did you know that the famous London Fog wasn’t fog at all but coal dust smog? It actually got so bad in the 50’s it killed people—and when Mrs. W goes out to hang up the wash she trips on something and smacks her head.
Jenny, meanwhile, is with Pearl, giving her the first of what will be several penicillin injections. Pearl drops her drawers yet again and snorts that she should have been a stripper, and if she had, she’d at least have met a better class of man. Oh, Pearl. No you wouldn’t have. What kind of men do you think frequent strip clubs?
Mrs. W starts to come to and looks around in confusion. She hears a baby crying but can’t find it, and then she passes out again. Her eldest comes looking for her mother and finds her and starts screaming for help.
Jenny lies in bed, just chilling for a bit. In comes Trixie with a cup of tea and the announcement that she could really use something stiffer. I think I’m going to like this girl. Trixie talks about how, when she was new, she thought she was awesome and deserved all kinds of medals for the work she did, but then she realized she wasn’t special at all, it was the mothers who deserved the accolades, because after all, they were doing all the hard work. Get it, Jenny? Get it? Because we’re running out of characters to drill these lessons into your head. Trixie suggests Jenny come out with her and Cynthia sometime, because they’ve got great dances down at the hall. They talk boys for a bit, and we learn that Jenny’s been in love with someone since she was 17, but she can’t have him and can’t give him up, so she’s kind of stuck for the time being. Interesting.
The phone rings. It’s Mr. W, telling her that Mrs. W fell and got a concussion and now she’s in labor. Jenny reports to Julienne, who starts getting her ready and warns her the baby’s unlikely to survive, unless the ambulance gets there on time. They’re on their way, but, you know, smog. She asks Jenny if she’s ever delivered a stillborn baby and Jenny nervously says she did once, in training, under supervision. Trixie offers to go with her but Julienne wants her to stay behind in case anyone else needs them.
Jenny arrives at the Warrens’ after cycling through the smoggy streets. Mrs. W is screaming in labor and writhing while her helpless husband tries to help her. Jenny, clearly feeling out of her depth, quotes Sister Evangelina (Sometimes we need to deal with what the lord has sent us) and gets to work. It seems Mrs. W is pretty out of it from the concussion and doesn’t really know she’s in labor, but her body will start to react normally, if she can just be held still, which is a challenge because she’s thrashing around and screaming. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be in that kind of pain and have no idea why you feel this way. That’s some hideous confusion. The baby is finally born, and he’s all blue and not breathing. Jenny clips the cord and takes him away as the eldest daughter looks on and cries. Jenny pulls it together and puts the daughter to work, sending her out to boil water while Jenny attends to Mrs. W. Mr. W asks if she’s going to live and Jenny notes that the woman’s going into shock and still losing blood. Mr. W cradles his wife and tells her how great she is. She says something about the baby and Mr. W tells her there’s no baby.
But then! There’s the sound of a baby fussing, and lo and behold, a miracle! The baby’s alive after all! Mrs. W asks about the baby again and Jenny hands him over carefully, and then notices that the woman’s still bleeding. She begins to panic and prepares some medication just as the ambulance crew arrives, along with the doctor. They give Jenny kudos and prepare to send the baby off to a neonatal unit somewhere. Jenny finally manages to detach the placenta, I guess, and Mrs. W starts to stabilize. They turn their attention to the baby, but Mrs. W won’t let them take him away, no matter how insistent the doctors are. The Warrens cradle the baby and each other and it’s quite lovely, really.
Jenny returns home, exhausted and slightly overwhelmed. She’s drawn to the chapel by the beautiful sound of the nuns singing. She listens for a little while, then leaves to get some well-deserved rest.
Julienne and Jenny visit the Warrens to check up on the baby and watch the two parents patiently feeding him milk drop by drop. When my dad was a baby he got croup and the doctors threw up their hands and told my grandmother he was going to die, and she kept him alive by doing just this for hours. Thanks, grandma! Never underestimate a mother’s determination. Julienne gently tries to urge them once more to take the baby to the hospital but it’s still a no. As they go, Julienne says they’ll stop pushing the hospital issue and just see how things go.
Jenny goes back for another checkup and happily reports that the baby’s put on weight: two whole ounces!
Jenny next goes to see Pearl, who’s curled up on her side on a sofa, listening to a radio program on how to keep your home ship shape and top-notch clean, which is a cruel irony, considering the squalor she lives in. And there’s an interesting contrast here: while the Warrens didn’t live in neat accommodations, they were bright and clearly filled with love and happy people. Pearl’s home is dark, filthy, and depressing. Pearl hollowly tells Jenny that she lost the baby, which Jenny was aware of. “Can’t win ‘em all, eh?” says Pearl, clearly trying to put a brave face on the whole thing. She wants her milk dried up, which is apparently another use for Epsom salts. You learn something new every day. She offers Jenny tea and warns her not to sit on one chair because her kid peed on it. Seriously, Pearl, put a diaper on that child. She sighs that she figures Jenny thinks they’re all slatterns there but Jenny’s seen the light and now thinks they’re all heroines.
Stranger in Paradise (heh) kicks up on the soundtrack as we see Mrs. W cradling and dancing with her newborn and VO tells us all about the power of Love. Jenny happily cycles through the streets and that’s it for this week.