1: A surprise
I didn’t expect to be exploring the BBC series Call The Midwife as a catalyst for historical investigation when I started teaching a new second-year module called ‘Culture, Community and the Family in Britain c 1660-1918’ this semester. As part of its design I created a Facebook Group for the module, which most of the 27 students have joined. I hoped this social-media forum would stimulate discussion and it has done just that, in ways that surprised (and entertained) me.
I’ve organised the module around themes that encourage the students to think about change over time. Our final topic of the semester is ‘secrets’, based around reading Deborah Cohen’s chapter ‘Children who Disappeared’ in her inspiring book Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day which charts families’ attitudes towards children with mental and physical problems. After reading this one student posted that she’d just seen episode 5 of Call The Midwife, whose story focused on the pregnancy of a young woman with Down’s Syndrome. She explained that she was struck by the way the story resonated with the chapter since both conveyed changing attitudes towards ‘backward’ children. And, brilliantly, this started a great conversation between several students who agreed that the series had not only inspired their interest in the history of the family, but also made them think more deeply about changing attitudes and approaches to some important issues relating to the family.
2: A confession
I hadn’t seen the first two series of Call The Midwife. I’d assumed it is a cosy weekend drama that offers a comforting picture of the past and had only kept an eye on it because its retro look is so appealing. Also I have found that being a historian spoils my enjoyment of series set in the past because I’m on the lookout for inaccuracies and anachronisms; so I tend not to bother. Yes, I know that historical drama is not the same as a factual history programme, but I often can’t seem to suspend disbelief. So, the students’ conversation that unfolded on Facebook was a real eye-opener for me.
Two students said that the series’ topics emotionally moved them and that these feelings then connected them to the issues and thus encouraged them to read more about them. Clearly a real strength of Call The Midwife is that it evokes emotional responses to human situations of sex, birth, and death – but not in a manipulative, purely sentimentalised way. What I mean is that the emotions are attached to important issues and done tastefully and seriously.
Another student had a very personal link in that her grandfather’s sister had Down’s Syndrome and the programme and our conversation prompted her to talk to her family about her relative’s life and treatment. The fact that her great-aunt was not institutionalised led us back to Cohen’s chapter which reveals that while numerous medical and cultural circumstances shaped the treatment of people with Downs’ Syndrome, social classes responded differently, so working-class families might be more inclined to keep such children at home, rather than send them to institutions.
Moreover, the series has helped my students think about the family as both a set of relationships, but also an institution that is deeply embedded in a community, open to scrutiny from experts, the state, and of course – in a pretty benign way here – the Church.
The students retain their sceptical eye when watching, however. I am pleased with this since we’re encouraging students to have a critical approach to their sources! For example, they questioned how far episode 5 might have created a ‘rosy’ picture of long-stay institutions, and some noted that they wanted to check this out by doing further reading. Several aim to read Jennifer Worth’s original memoir. Bit embarrassingly, I didn’t realise that the series was based on a midwife’s publications, so that was another thing I learned. BTW I’ve now got a copy and find the memoir is great too! I do think the series’ value so far is its roots in Jennifer Worth’s memoirs. In many ways, it is a dramatized version of the sort of primary sources that history students work on.
3: A revelation and a resolution
The students encouraged me to watch Call The Midwife episodes on BBC iPlayer, kindly sending me the links on Facebook. I watched the episodes and – yes, I cried too – and what is more I realised that my students had made me re-think my preconceptions about historical drama. After all, here is a TV series that makes no claim to be social history (though the series’ website has some interesting observations on the history of the NHS), but is nonetheless capturing the historical imagination of many people. It is satisfying viewers’ desire for history as narrative, but not shying away from controversial issues like the institutionalization of people with learning difficulties, mixed-race babies, illegitimacy, and adoption; all topics that we are considering in our module.
Admittedly, I’m belatedly noticing something that other teachers in Higher Education have known for a while. If somewhat late to the table, I’ve learnt a valuable lesson: being a bit pompous and precious about historical drama is doing me no favours. Clearly I am missing a very valuable vehicle for teaching history and an excellent way to help students think about changing attitudes over time. I need to do more than add a clip from YouTube to my lecture. Other academics are thinking actively and creatively about the popular culture of history, like this paper which – again – one of my students found for me. Hence I’m going to learn from my students and use resources that offer pathways into the past and history. I aim to think about how to use historical television (drama as well as history documentary) to promote and direct student learning. Any tips would be welcome!
(Thanks to the students on Culture, Community & Family for their permission to write about this!)