For much of its early life, “Call the Midwife” lived in the period-drama shadow of its more glamorous PBS cousin “Downton Abbey.” How could a group of young, shirtwaisted midwives bicycling through London’s East End in the early days of the National Health Service ever hope to compete with the bejeweled and Georgian splendor of the Crawley family and its fabled manse?
By outliving it, of course, including and especially during this most festive time of year.
Where once the “Downton Abbey” Christmas special enthralled audiences on either side of the Atlantic, now “Call the Midwife” tops many “best holiday specials” lists (along with the venerable and inevitable “Doctor Who”), and longevity is not the reason.
Tradition is certainly a factor, as are heartstrings, which, going into its seventh season, “Call the Midwife” continues to pluck as deftly as any tabernacle harpist. With its ongoing story line of birth and death, the story of Nonnatus House, in which dwell both ambitious young women and the wise Anglican sisters who oversee them, has a natural inclination toward sentiment. Many series attempt to lean Dickensian in December, but the midwives’ milieu — among the urban poor and disenfranchised — makes the themes of charity, forgiveness and love a more a natural fit.
Especially this year’s Christmas Day episode, which takes place during the Big Freeze of 1962-63, the worst English winter in 200 years. Originally based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, the series long ago outstripped its source material and now has moved into the 1960s, which means the opening credit images are now colorized and the East End is not quite as destitute as it once was. Still, a series of blizzards quickly brings things to a frigid standstill as the denizens of Nonnatus and their Poplar neighborhood cope with lack of heat, interrupted milk deliveries, frozen plumbing and increasing fatalities.
With the series’ signature mix of plot lines lighthearted and grave, Nurse Phyllis (Linda Bassett) engages in a match of wits with a crusty policeman while Nonnatus newbie Valerie Dyer (Jennifer Kirby) comes to the aid of a young couple living in a caravan and new mother Shelagh (Laura Main) wiggles into her girdle so she can return to work early and help out her beleaguered spouse, the tireless Dr. Turner (Stephen McGann).
But even as she continues to enlist Vanessa Redgrave to deliver, via voice-over, a gentle benediction at the beginning and end of each episode, “Midwife” creator Heidi Thomas has never shied from the darker elements and events of women’s lives, including destitution, incest, dementia, alcoholism, abortion, homophobia and racism. In this episode, Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) attempts to heal the festering emotional wounds of domestic and sexual abuse.
Yes, there is sentiment and the seasonal overreliance on love as the solution to all things, but there is also the frank acknowledgment that terrible things happen, sometimes for no reason but sometimes because a system — social, political, spiritual — is broken and must be fixed. That this episode, like most in the series, ends on a note of hope and community does not negate its presentation of other, less festive realities, including hopelessness and abuse.
Over the years, many things have changed on “Call the Midwife” — the character who stood in for Worth has gone, as have Miranda Hart’s hilarious Chummy and Pam Ferris’ cantankerous Sister Evangelina. But many things have not. Agutter’s Sister Julienne remains a unique balance of kindness and insistence, Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) continues to thread wisdom with wild-eyed self-indulgence, and Poplar continues to be a place where the harshness of real life is soothed by the recognition that miracles, large and small, really do happen. Especially at Christmas.
‘Call the Midwife’ holiday special
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)