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When Grace “Fails”—The Music of Call the Midwife

November 13th, 2015 | 6 min read

By Jake Meador

The third episode of the first season of the BBC show Call the Midwife is about what we do when our attempts to love and show mercy to a person seem to fail. The first story in the episode concerns Nurse Lee’s relationship with an old soldier who she visits in-home to help care for his ulcerous feet. The second concerns a pregnant woman in her early 40s who has remarried after becoming a widow but who has married more for her children’s sake than out of love.

Throughout the episode we see both Nurse Lee and Ted Lawson, something of a holy fool in this story, showing a level of interest in another person that is not typical in London’s working class east end neighborhood. Nurse Lee visits Mr. Collett at night to keep him company after the loss of his wife. She shares a drink with him and, along with her friend Jimmy, takes him to an old meeting of war veterans that he hasn’t been able to attend in years due to his legs.

Unfortunately, the story of Mr. Collett ends in tragedy. The city decides to tear down the tenements that he had lived in for over 40 years. As a result, he was forced to move into a workhouse where he was not able to receive sufficient medical attention. He couldn’t even find someone to walk him outside so he could smoke his pipe, which Jenny did when she visited him. But due to the lack of medical care, his ulcers turned gangrenous and his legs had to be amputated. Not long after that, Mr. Collett died alone and forgotten. He died without a funeral and Jenny was the only one to visit his grave.

In the other plot, Mr. Lawson distinguishes himself as an obnoxiously devoted husband who dotes on his pregnant wife, reads every book he can find about pregnancy (unheard of for a man in that era), and tries to do as much as he can to help Winnie throughout her pregnancy.

She, at times, is frustrated by his attention which is quite understandable as his care sometimes becomes a bit overbearing. That said, even at his most annoying Ted is a thoroughly sympathetic figure, even if we’re also encouraged to sympathize with his wife who is in something of a loveless marriage that the cultural conditions forced upon her after the death of her first husband.

One of the odd things that isn’t explained at first, however, is why Winnie seems so unenthused about her pregnancy. She hides the pregnancy for some time, only coming in to the midwives when she is 36 weeks along and can no longer conceal it from Ted. At first we’re led to think she’s mostly embarrassed to be pregnant so much later in life than was typical in her day, but moments before the birth we learn the real reason: She had a one-night stand with a black man and is worried that the baby will be black, thereby proving her infidelity to Ted and costing her the stability she made such sacrifices to gain and the love of a man she truly came to love over the course of her pregnancy.

Thus we see another kind of failing of grace; Ted is devoted to Winnie and deeply in love with her, yet she is not at first satisfied by it and thus has a brief affair.

Here the music of the show is instructive in how we should read the story. As Mr. Collett dies, we hear the nuns begin to sing:

Lord, lettest now thou servant depart in peace according to Thy word: For mine eyes have seen Thy salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people to be a light to lighten the Gentiles and to be the glory of Thy people as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end, amen.

This, of course, is lifted directly from the speech of Simeon recorded in Luke 2 where an aging man who was often at the temple sees the baby Jesus and gives basically the very speech that the nuns sing:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

The placement of the song within the episode is striking: Each main plot climaxes just before this scene. First, we are given the birth of a baby who will be named Edward Lawson, the name he shares with his adopted father. Winnie has her baby and he is black. Two stunned midwives and a doctor do not know how to break the news to the thrilled new father waiting outside and so he discovers for himself when he enters the room and sees the baby for the first time. But his response is remarkable and a striking picture of the Gospel:

Ted: Oy! You don’t know what this means to m… (sees the baby and stops mid-sentence, followed by a long silence) … Can I see the baby? (stares, as the baby whimpers in his arms and then rubs his hand with his little finger)
Winnie: Ted!
Ted: I don’t reckon to know much about babies but I can see how this is the most beautiful baby in the world. What are we going to call him?
Winnie: Why don’t you choose it, love?
Ted: We’ll call him Edward then, good old family name. My son Ted.

Later we are told by the narrator that Ted never spoke to Winnie about the man she had been with. Even after her unfaithfulness, grace is still free.

Immediately after that story wraps up we are taken to a hospital bed as a drugged Mr. Collett meets Jenny, now missing both his legs. Jenny is crying throughout the meeting, but Mr. Collett assures her that he’ll be OK. The scene ends as an older Jenny (who is also the narrator) explains that he died not long after the operation. We are then taken to his graveside as the nuns sing Simeon’s speech.

And so we are invited to see the birth of this baby (and his adopted father’s response) as a kind of salvation that allows Mr. Collett to depart in peace, even if his country has forgotten him and his family has died or left. Mr. Collett can go in peace because we have seen the salvation displayed in the birth of a baby and his father’s response to it. There’s two senses in which this seems to work—the first comes from the show’s uncompromising belief that every new life is a cause for joy. There are two separate times the show deals with abortion, as best I can recall. The first is a mention of it to Sister Julienne, the head of the order and something of a heroic figure in the story. The mention of “terminating” the birth provokes one of the only times that the usually calm sister appears angry throughout the series. The second instance is when a woman who attempted to abort her own child is wheeled down a hallway so that viewers can see the aftermath. In both cases, the show doesn’t flinch from the horror that is abortion, choosing instead to give a full-throated endorsement of life, even in situations as difficult as the one facing Ted and Winnie in this episode.

But, of course, the birth itself is not the only kind of salvation that we see in this episode, though it certainly is such for the previously childless Ted. We also see it in Ted’s remarkable response to Winnie, which in some ways echoes the story of Hosea, although Winnie is a far more sympathetic character than Gomer. But in any case, Ted’s adoration of the baby from the first time he holds him is another cause for rejoicing that shocks even the midwives, who search in vain for some other explanation for his response besides the obvious one—love. The music then knits the story together, inviting us to see this birth and this father’s love not simply as things to be merely happy about, but as being in some sense a consolation to Mr. Collett, for what hope he has rests in the birth of a child.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).