Downton Abbey may attract all the accolades and Sherlock might whip the fangirls into a frenzy, but Call The Midwife is actually the best show on the PBS schedule.
The series, set in the 1950's, follows Jenny Lee (elegantly played by Jessica Raine) as she embarks upon a new career as a midwife while living and working in East London. The show not only creates a vision of London so vivid you can smell the soot, but surrounds Jenny with a spectacularly well-rounded assemblage of women who share her passion for civil service.
ETonline caught up with Raine to talk about the show's massive popularity, the pressure of quality control and why, at the end of the day, all you need is love.
ETonline: The first season set the bar quite high in terms of powerful storytelling. How do you feel season two lived up?
Jessica Raine: Coming in, we knew we had to be as good, if not better in the second series. Thankfully we had a lot of story still to use from the books [the series is based on Jennifer Worth's memoirs], so everyone had a lot of confidence with that. We knew there would be so much more to tell, but at the same time, Heidi [Thomas, who adapted the books for series] has strengthened and deepened their relationships so much this season. When we got the first scripts, we were all so thrilled.
ETonline: Since the very beginning I've been moved by the show's dedication to depicting the power of love. What initially attracted you to Midwife?
Raine: Actually, exactly what you said. A lot of people pick up on the religious aspect, some on the nostalgia, but for me, what really shines through is the power of love. I don't want to break into a big ballad [laughs] but I love how we do it in a way that's not cheesy or sentimental, which is the key because I've got a real quick sentimental switch. If something seems too obvious, I don't want to do it. But it never is with this show. We really showcase love in all of its guises -- it's female friendship and the relationship between a patient and nurse. Yes there are romantic relationships as well, but that's not at the forefront. There's a real care for other people in the show and that's something I've taken from it since day one.
ETonline: Typically, a show with this many female characters would eventually turn two of them into adversaries. But that's yet to happen on Midwife, and I suspect it never will. What do you think about the show not veering into such well-worn territory?
Raine: I think it's really refreshing. It would be easy to pit these women against each other, but because of the environment they're in, they're too busy for those kinds of shenanigans. We're all working really hard and all of them have the knowledge that they're doing a difficult job and the goal is just to come home. Fighting is not helpful, so they all rub along together. They're four strong women, and then you have four other well-defined characters in the nuns, who have their moments of not getting along, which is natural when you work and live with each other, but we mine humor from that, which I think is lovely.
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ETonline: Obviously this is viewed through a modern lens, but I've always marveled at how inventive these women are required to be given the technological constraints of the time. Does playing that kind of ingenuity ever make you long for a simpler time?
Raine: It really does. It makes me pine for those days a bit -- there is something quite nice about not dealing with emails 24/7. Whenever I'm playing Jenny and she's in a situation where the responsibly is on her to deliver a baby, it reinforces that, ultimately, she's responsible. She has to step up, otherwise life is literally lost. I think it shows how the women are very responsible and highly capable.
ETonline: The show doesn't skip ahead too much in time, but major technological advancements are on the horizon. Is the show interested in showing how modernity affects their livelihood?
Raine: That's a really good question. Time moves quite slowly on our show, I have a feeling series three will only be six months to a year later again, so, not terribly far into the future. But we are heading for 1960 when the pill is introduced, and that radically changes everything. I don't know if we'll get to that point in series three, but I'm fascinated by seeing that. In the books, which I always go back to, Jennifer writes that the pill was so popular, midwifes became a bit redundant. It cuts down the number of pregnancies by quite a lot because women were in control of their own bodies in a whole new way. I find being on the cusp of that social change so fascinating.
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ETonline: Should that come to pass, what do you think Jenny would do if midwifery was no longer an option?
Raine: She has grown so much through her job and I think it's incredibly refreshing to see in a young, female character so informed by her work in that time. In the books, Jennifer left to become a music teacher, but in the show, we've shown Jenny to be seriously interested in climbing the hierarchy of the medical profession. I would be interested to see her get more responsibly in series three. I think she loves what she does, she's so good at midwifery -- there was that episode in London with the horrible doctor, so I think she longs for the day where she can go back and show that doctor up. I think she would stick with it.
ETonline: Call The Midwife has been a huge hit on both sides of the pond. How has life changed for you since it started airing?
Raine: It's opened a lot of doors for me. I had a career in theater that I loved before Call The Midwife, but I was very aware that I had not been in front of a camera very much and, as a result, I used to get very close to jobs in television where it was between me and the other person, and then the producers would see that I hadn't done much television, so the other girl would get it. It's amazing that it only takes one job to turn everything around. Now I have all this experience and people know who I am, so it's been a big change for me. On the street, when the show is airing and I'm walking around, it goes a bit crazy.
ETonline: I take it then you can no longer ride a bike around London?
Raine: [laughs] Yeah. I might draw too much attention if I rode a bike around London -- and I'd probably crash.
Call The Midwife season one is now available on Netflix, while season two is available on PBS.com.