Call the Midwife’, the innocuous Sunday night BBC drama about a group of midwives in Poplar is entering it’s sixth series this month. The cheery nuns, the starched white midwife caps and community spirit in the face of adversity place ‘Call the Midwife’ squarely in the halcyon, simpler days-of-yore that most of our BBC dramas inhabit. Until Brexit and the tide of racism it brought with it, this all seemed harmless fun and although I’m not exactly the target demographic I used to be a fan. However, I can’t ignore the massive problem the BBC has around race any longer. ‘Call the Midwife’ scored incredibly low with viewers of colour, and with good reason. There are very few episodes that include people of colour, and in those that do, the character’s race is usually their main storyline.
“By reducing people of colour to stereotypes in our dramas, we alienate a growing part of our population”
Yes, the show is set in the late 1950s and there would have been very few ethnic minorities in London, but these characters deserve proper storylines, with proper character development, as much as their white counterparts. By reducing people of colour to stereotypes in our dramas, we alienate a growing part of our population. At a time when television should be becoming more accessible we are reinforcing divides that run much deeper than Sunday night viewing habits.
Despite this I had high hopes for the Christmas episode. The show had had a few month’s breaks, and I hoped the growing acknowledgment of racism in television would have trickled down to the writers. What followed was one of the biggest indulgences in the ‘white saviour’ narrative I’ve ever seen on the television. When a mission hospital in South Africa is threatened with closure, the ever helpful Nonnatus midwives hop on the plane to assist it’s ailing doctor (firstly, who’s running the midwifery in Poplar while they’re away?? I spy a plot hole..). While this could be seen as a noble pursuit, the wealthy, upper-middle-class nurses proceed to patronise their patients and generally disregard their culture.
The community is constantly referred to as ‘those people,’ and their poverty often met with disdain and shock by the midwives. Nothing sums up the sly racism of this episode more than the sight of the cast enjoying an idyllic picnic on a ‘Whites Only’ beach, eating food more decadent than anything anyone in the rural South African village would be able to afford. While this may be a very accurate representation of missionary work in South Africa, the fact that these characters, as opposed to the black villagers, are viewed as the heroes is incredibly damaging.
By showing them to be enjoying something that caused untold damage to a nation, and repackage it as light entertainment, is nothing short of shameful. There are ways to show race sensitively, but this is not one. Dear BBC, this show might be set in the 1950s, but it appears you’ve got stuck there.