3:51pm

Mon December 24, 2012
Television

Beyond 'Downton': BBC Imports That Got Away

Originally published on Tue December 25, 2012 7:50 am

There was so much great stuff in arts and entertainment this year that we just couldn't report on all of it as it was happening. So we're playing a little catch-up on the ones that got by us.

In 2012, the BBC delivered some thrilling new TV dramas to its two primary outlets in the U.S.: PBS, which has been programming its shows for decades, and the cable channel BBC America.

First BBC America: One of its best shows is The Hour, a slick production set in the 1950s; think Mad Men meets Broadcast News. The series centers on the journalists, and the egos, that put together a daily TV news show. With ticking deadlines, booze, sex and crime, The Hour moves at a pace that is never dull.

Perry Simon, BBC America's general manager, says The Hour functions on many different levels. "As a personal drama, a historical drama in terms of the BBC news of that era, and then as an edge-of-your-seat drama," he says.

Another series Simon is very proud of is not an import, but rather an original series co-produced by BBC America: Copper, a gritty crime drama packed with history.

Set in New York City during what Simon calls "the last gasps of the Civil War," Copper revolves around Detective Kevin Corcoran, an intense, rugged Irish immigrant who travels the seedy Five Points neighborhood but also the wealthy Upper East Side and the northern, largely African-American part of the city. Simon says Copper gave BBC America its highest-rated drama ever.

As for PBS, it had a hit with a series that is divinely unconventional. Call the Midwife is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. When she was 22, she left her middle-class life and became a midwife with the nuns at a convent in a poor part of London in the 1950s.

In the U.K., the TV series was a sensation, every bit as popular as that other period phenomenon, Downton Abbey. Call the Midwife Executive Producer Pippa Harris says when she first read Worth's books, she knew it was a TV series in the making.

"The episodic nature of her storytelling and the big ensemble cast, but also the mixture of humor and pathos ... within the storylines that she tells, all of which made me think it would be brilliant television," says Harris.

The midwives are quite a sight as they ride bikes through the cobbled streets of London's East End, the nuns in full habit and the lay nurses in skirts.

The characters are irresistible. There's Sister Evangelina, a no-nonsense nurse with little patience for the middle-class midwives who gasp at the poor living conditions.

"Sister Evangelina, who is played by Pam Ferris, is probably the most working-class of our characters," says Harris. "So she feels that she very much understands the community around her and finds, at times, that the others are all a little bit on a higher plane and being ridiculous about things. So she's very good about slapping the other characters down."

There's the posh but clumsy midwife-in-training, Camilla Fortescue Cholomondley-Browne — "Chummy" for short. She is played to perfection by English comedian Miranda Hart.

Call the Midwife is really about the community created among the nuns, the lay nurses and the people living under dreary circumstances. The midwives take care of everyone from elderly prostitutes to teenage mothers.

In 2008, Worth talked to the BBC about her experiences as a midwife. She said that even though she and the other nurses were working in rough neighborhoods, sometimes by themselves late at night, they never felt they were in danger.

"There was a Cockney saying: 'A nurse is safe amongst us.' And we knew we were absolutely safe. That was because of the tradition the nuns had built up. They'd been there since 1870s. They had built up respect, almost reverence. And the men knew that their women relied upon us and they wouldn't have touched us. If they had, they'd have been beaten up by the other men," she said.

Worth consulted on the BBC TV series. But during pre-production, she was diagnosed with cancer, and she died six weeks later.

"She actually died before we started filming and never got to see anything on film, which was awful actually," says Harris.

In the series, Vanessa Redgrave is the voice of the main character, Jenny Lee, looking back on her career. The character is inspired by Worth, and Call the Midwife captures the essence of her memoirs.

"Midwifery is the very stuff of life," says Jenny Lee in the TV series. "Every child is conceived in love or lust and born in pain followed by joy or by tragedy and anguish. Every birth is attended by a midwife. She is in the thick of it. She sees it all."

PBS will be running a Call the Midwife holiday special on Dec. 30. A new season begins at the end of March 2013.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Throughout the year, we report on a lot of new books and music and other entertainment, but we miss a few. So this week, we're going to play a little catch up in the series we're calling The Ones That Got Away.

Today, NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us about three TV dramas from the BBC.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: There are two primary platforms for BBC shows in the U.S.: PBS, which has been programming their shows for decades, and the cable channel BBC America. One of its best shows is a cross between "Mad Men" and "Broadcast News."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HOUR")

ROMOLA GARAI: (as Bel Rowley) Ten minutes, ladies and gentlemen. We have a show starting and a new head of news to impress.

BLAIR: "The Hour" takes place in London in the 1950s. It centers around the journalists and egos who put together a daily TV news show. Ticking deadlines, booze, sex, crime, "The Hour" moves.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE HOUR")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) One hundred and seventy-six murders in the past year. That's 37 more than the year before, a surge in violent crime in areas of London, particularly in Soho and the West End.

PERRY SIMON: It really functions, both as a personal drama, as a historical drama in terms of the BBC news of that era, and then as a really kind of edge-of-your-seat crime drama.

BLAIR: Perry Simon heads up BBC America. He says another show he's very proud of is not an import but a series coproduced by BBC America and set in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COPPER")

TOM WESTON-JONES: Police. Drop your weapon.

BLAIR: "Copper" is a gritty crime drama packed with history.

SIMON: "Copper" is set in 1864, during the last gasp of the Civil War, and it revolves around very intense, rugged Irish immigrant cop who returns from the war to find his wife missing, his daughter dead.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COPPER")

WESTON-JONES: (as Detective Kevin Corcoran) Since I came home two months ago and found them at the home, I ain't certain of anything.

BLAIR: "Copper" gave BBC America its highest-rated drama ever, says Perry Simon. As for PBS, they had a hit with the series that is divinely unconventional.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (as Character) We are the sisters of St. Raymond Nonnatus, midwives and district nurses, present at life's commencement and at its end.

BLAIR: "Call the Midwife" on PBS is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. When she was 22, she left her middle-class life and became a midwife with the nuns at a convent in a poor part of London in the 1950s.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

VANESSA REDGRAVE: (as Mature Jenny) I knew nothing of poverty or appalling houses, nothing of lice, of filth, of families sleeping four to a bed.

BLAIR: In the UK, "Call the Midwife" was a sensation and every bit as popular as that other period phenomenon "Downton Abbey." Small wonder. "Call the Midwife" has characters you fall in love with: great humor and poignancy and drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as Character) Well done. Well done. Well done. That's it. You have a little boy.

BLAIR: "Call the Midwife's" executive producer Pippa Harris says when she first read Jennifer Worth's memoirs, she knew it was a TV series in the making.

PIPPA HARRIS: I think it was a combination of the episodic nature of her storytelling and the big ensemble cast, but also the mixture of humor and pathos that she has within the storylines that she tells. All of which combined made me think it would be brilliant television.

BLAIR: "Call the Midwife" takes place in the tenement blocks of London's East End. The midwives ride bikes through the overcrowded streets to get to their charges, the nuns in full garb and the lay nurses in skirts.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

JESSICA RAINE: (as Jenny Lee) There are between 80 and 100 babies born each month in Poplar. Soon as one vacates its pram, another one takes its place.

BLAIR: One of the many compelling characters is Sister Evangelina, a no-nonsense nurse who's seen it all and has little patience for the middle-class nurses who gasp at the poor living conditions.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW," CALL THE MIDWIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (as Character) There's newspaper under here.

PAM FERRIS: (as Sister Evangelina) Saves on laundry and lets the mattress live another day.

HARRIS: Sister Evangelina, who is played by Pam Ferris, is probably the most working class of our characters. So she feels that she very much understands the community around her and finds at times that the others are, you know, all a little bit on a higher plain and they're being ridiculous about things. So she's very good at slapping the other characters down.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

FERRIS: (as Sister Evangelina) You're not in hospital now with cupboards full of spotless line. Oh, come on. It's quicker to do it myself. Look.

BLAIR: Sister Evangelina's annoyance takes an amusing turn when an upper class young woman, a midwife-in-training, shows up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

FERRIS: (as Sister Evangelina) I understand you qualified by a whisker, Nurse Fortescue Cholomondley-Browne.

MIRANDA HART: (as Chummy Browne) I did pass. It was a bit of a scrape.

BLAIR: Chummy for short is played by Miranda Hart. She's extremely tall, clumsy and needs a bike lesson.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

HART: (as Chummy Browne) Oh, no. Sorry, sorry. (Unintelligible) body parts business, feet, you know, doing different things.

BLAIR: "Call the Midwife" is really about the community created between the nuns, the lay nurses and the people living under dreary circumstances. The midwives take care of the elderly, prostitutes and teenaged mothers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (as character) (Unintelligible) kicks, all I can think is please let her be born strong. Everything else can wait till later.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: (as character) Quite right too. You just need to keep resting and eating as much as you can.

BLAIR: In 2008, Jennifer Worth talked to the BBC about her experiences as a midwife. She said that even though she and the other nurses were working in rough neighborhoods, sometimes by themselves late at night, they never felt they were in danger.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENNIFER WORTH: There's a cockney saying: A nurse is safe amongst us. And we knew we were absolutely safe. And that was because of the tradition that the nuns had built up. They'd been there since 1918 - 1870s. And they had built up respect, almost reverence. And the men knew that the women relied upon us and they wouldn't have touched us. If they had, they would have been beaten up by the other men.

BLAIR: Jennifer Worth consulted on the BBC TV series. But during pre-production, she was diagnosed with throat cancer and died six weeks later. Pippa Harris.

HARRIS: She actually died before we started filming and never got to see anything on film, which was awful actually.

BLAIR: In the series, Vanessa Redgrave is the voice of the main character Jenny Lee looking back on her career. The character is inspired by Jennifer Worth, and "Call the Midwife" captures the essence of her memoirs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "CALL THE MIDWIFE")

REDGRAVE: (as Mature Jenny) Midwifery is the very stuff of life. Every child is conceived in love or lust and born in pain followed by joy or by tragedy and anguish. Every birth is attended by a midwife. She is in the thick of it. She sees it all.

BLAIR: PBS will be running a "Call the Midwife" holiday special on December 30th. A new season begins at the end of March next year. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.