IN common with several million people, we tune in every Sunday evening to a double bill of drama on BBC1 – Call The Midwife and McMafia. It would be hard to imagine two shows with more different themes. One celebrates the kindness of strangers – the midwives and nuns of Nonnatus House, serving not only the local community but also the immigrants who end up in the melting pot of the East End. The other paints a vivid but terrifying portrait of the cruelty of families – the ruthless fathers who head criminal operations while shielding their families from the reality of their lives.
Both stories have obvious shared qualities of excellent acting, tight scripts, a sense of place (whether it’s Poplar or Prague) and the kind of story-telling that in a book is described as “a real page-turner.”
But they share something else – powerful loyalties and networks. In the one these are generally benign, in the other they are uniformly malign. One is built almost entirely on the shared needs of poverty and the largely powerless; the other on the demands, greed and entitlement of extreme wealth and power. One is a network of community, of a place where people know each other, may gossip and criticise but also understand the problems and share in the small successes and triumphs. The other is a network of crime, an international web of power, money, drugs, arms, trafficking and the invisible tentacles of the dark web.
It is a world in which cargoes – of cocaine, Eastern European girls, guns, fake perfume or scam fashions – can be instantly moved by distant hackers around a Mumbai wharf or a Czech warehouse. The freight that once came through London’s Docklands or the port of New York with box files full of lading documents now moves silently around a flickering screen that might be in Tel Aviv or Rio de Janeiro.
In this world there are no friends, only associates – people who are as loyal as the last and biggest payment. Jihadists of ISIS will trade (and rape) abducted Russian girls for Israeli cash; policemen can be bought like cans of baked beans.
It was curious to read a review by a newspaper television critic who had – reluctantly – decided it was time he actually watched Call The Midwife. (It’s only the seventh series!) To his surprise he found that 10 million people aren’t wrong – it has great stories, compelling characters, fine acting – and a sense of kindness which, he noted, was quite rare in television. All credit to him for admitting he was wrong in his previous dismissal of it as cosy and sentimental.
Just because a scene may make you cry does not make it soppy or maudlin. The sentiments in Call The Midwife are deeply human and humane. Good does not always prevail, but, in the hands of the midwives, the doctors and even the grumpy old police sergeant, it does its best to help those in need. Few who saw it will easily forget the recent episode about the old Jewish couple. You have very little heart if you didn’t have tears in your eyes at the end, but there was little that was sugary in this death of an old woman in a condemned terraced house, and the heartbreak of a husband who had finally found the words to express his feelings.
It is also curious to note how much sentimentality there is in McMafia. The despicable father of the Godman clan is a wimpering adulterer and former gangster whose children are now having to fight his battles and clear up (or not, who knows how it will end?) the messes he and his hot-headed, violent (and now dead) brother have created. And Vadim, the head of the rival Russian gang, is a kind and thoughtful father, doing all he can to protect his adoring daughter from the sources of his wealth and power – yet we have witnessed the unspeakable violence he can personally unleash on a corrupt policeman and the levels of cruelty he will authorise through his foot-soldiers on the daughters and girl-friends of his enemies.
There is a tendency among many in the media to decry “soft” emotion, as if it shows a lack of sophistication. Reality should be hard and brutal; kindness is for wimps – although, of course, we can laugh and cry at Strictly or Britain’s Got Talent or I’m A Celebrity, because that’s “reality”!
Yet the reality for most of us will always be the ordinary joys and miseries of life, births, marriages (gay or straight), divorce, disease, death, getting or losing a job, car accidents, floods, losing your dog, going on holiday, nursing someone you love through a painful terminal illness, celebrating your best friend’s win on the lottery, visiting elderly parents or friends in their nursing home, babysitting grandchildren, getting mad as hell at the vandal who pulls up the flowers in your front garden, laughing at old school photos …
For a reality check, Call The Midwife – McMafia is real too, but it is not the world that most of us know and we should be grateful for that, while we enjoy its stylish storytelling.