Column: The best Christmas special of all time is streaming on Netflix
If you are going to watch only one Christmas special this year, please let it be “Christmas Special 2012” from the British series “Call the Midwife.”
Brits take Christmas television far more seriously than Americans. Along with the Queen’s speech, a plethora of holiday specials fill the BBC and iTV on Dec. 25 and the days surrounding it — and in recent years Americans have been able to see many of those specials in real time as well. The Christmas specials of “Doctor Who” have become legendary enough to be regularly ranked (I wouldn’t trust any list that doesn’t have 2010’s steampunk fever dream of “A Christmas Carol,” featuring Michael Gambon, at the top), but after years of holiday viewing, both professional and personal, I have come to believe that “Call the Midwife” is the real holiday hero.
Based on a trio of memoirs by Jennifer Worth, “Call the Midwife” begins as a chronicle of Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine) as she joins Nonnatus House, a nursing convent run by a group of young women and Church of England sisters who deliver babies and care for expectant and new mothers in the East End of London. The series begins in the late 1950s, just as the nascent National Health Service is taking hold, providing free medical service to British citizens including the very poor, who make up most of Nonnatus House’s patients.
It is a very Christian show, in the broadest and truest meaning of the word Christian. The sisters, headed by Jenny Agutter’s wise and radiant Sister Julienne, are active in their faith. They are tried, on occasion, by changing times and personal challenges, and none is without her faults, but all remain dedicated to the teachings of Christ, who embraced the poor, healed the sick, comforted the suffering and passed judgment only on those who ignored , reviled or persecuted the poor, the sick, the suffering.
Even in normal times, treacly TV movies fail to capture the pain and anxiety that comes with Christmastime for many. This year, it’s salt in the wound.
All of which the secular midwives do as well, though often with less understanding of the forces at work in their patients’ lives, and, at times, impatience with the sisters’ vows of obedience and acceptance.
One could argue that any episode of “Call the Midwife” captures the true message of Christmas and indeed I would recommend the entire series, now entering its 10th season and available on Netflix, for those seeking affirmation of humanity’s potential for kindness, generosity, resilience and neighborly love. Which is to say everyone.
But the series’ Christmas specials are indeed special — how could they not be, with the nuns and the babies, the Dickensian flavor of London mid-winter and Cockney children inevitably corralled into a home-spun holiday pageant? As with “Doctor Who,” the holiday episodes are quite worthy of being ranked, though all of them are very good (and several come in two parts). 2014’s has the added delight of featuring Vanessa Redgrave — who provides the voice-over for the whole series — in her only physical appearance as the older Jenny. But for me, the first remains the best.
The storyline that makes this such a powerful and extraordinary 90 minutes of television revolves around a woman known as Mrs. Jenkins, played by Sheila Reid. Mrs. Jenkins is old, filthy and more than a little crazy. She hovers over prams and dogs the midwives, asking after the health of new babies. She has done this, we are told by Sister Evangeline (Pam Ferris), for years, frightening mothers and disgusting onlookers with her terrible hygiene and tendency to relieve herself in the street. Jenny, a middle-class young woman who spent much of the first season in shock at the conditions in which some East Enders live, is particularly horrified by Mrs. Jenkins. Which may be why Sister Julienne sends her to nurse Mrs. Jenkins after the old woman collapses, bringing her to the attention of the NHS.
Mrs. Jenkins is no more open to being touched by Jenny than Jenny is to touching her. So Sister Evangeline, a no-nonsense child of abject poverty herself, testily agrees to act as backup, finally winning Mrs. Jenkins’ trust with a bit of performative flatulence.
Slowly, out of the decrepit room in an abandoned building, from under the filthy clothes, matted hair and incoherent mumblings (broken at times by what Sister Evangeline identifies as “the workhouse howl”), Mrs. Jenkins emerges as a person. A widow and mother with a tragic backstory that underscores the heartlessness of Ebenezer Scrooge’s famous “are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” repudiation of personal charity.
Minute for minute, the scene in which Jenny and Sister Evangeline prepare Mrs. Jenkins for a bath and then bathe her is the most truly holy thing I have ever seen on any screen, a reminder that one’s form or state of faith notwithstanding, caring for another as we ourselves would be cared for is the most sacred act we can perform.
Tragically, Mrs. Jenkins is a character drawn, from her pram-lurking to her remarkable toenails, directly from Worth’s original memoir. Her story, in all its personal agony and criminal social neglect, is real. And, more important, shared — in its particulars and its generalities — by too many millions of people, alive and dead.
Is her story given a more heart-wrenching but life-affirming conclusion for the purposes of this Christmas special than Mrs. Jenkins found in real life? Perhaps, but the point of Christmas, with all its ritualized storytelling and ancient mythology, is to remind us that we can be better, we should be better, we must be better.
From slapstick comedy to snooty stoicism, British television is a soothing escape from troubled times. Plus all those great accents.
Although she deals with her own journey of faith in “Call the Midwife: A True Story of the East End in the 1950s,” Worth is not interested in preaching. She wrote the first volume of her memoirs after reading an article in which the author wondered why midwives were so obviously absent from literature — where was the writer who would do for midwives what James Herriot did for veterinarians? Worth wanted to fill that void, and she did. Her book became an instant bestseller.
Though Worth died just before “Call the Midwife” began filming, her daughters remain big fans, and the show has long outstripped Worth’s own experiences, moving well into the 1960s with an increasingly diverse cast of characters facing — along with an awe-inspiring variety of births — all sorts of cultural, social and political changes.
Certainly the series, like the books, has brought to light the extraordinary work of so many women throughout the years. Perhaps even more important, it is one of the few series that deals unflinchingly, if a bit aspirationally, with the issues faced by the working class and the poor, the destitute and the marginalized. And every story is different because every person, every family, is different.
Only the need to help and be helped is the same — and that need, as all the characters of “Call the Midwife” discover at one point or another, is universal. We are all Mrs. Jenkins, in some way, at some time, just as we are all Jenny Lee and Sister Evangeline. We just need to remember that, on Christmas and every day that isn’t.
‘Call the Midwife Christmas Special 2012’
When: Any time
Rated: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for language and smoking)
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