Call the Midwife strikes the right chord of times past

Miranda Hart stars as 'Chummy' in <i>Call the Midwife</i>.
Miranda Hart stars as 'Chummy' in Call the Midwife

In LP Hartley's words, ''The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.'' Call The Midwife (Thursdays, ABC1, 8.30pm) also happens to be set in an actual foreign country, but it's the evocation of times gone by that strikes most strongly in this quietly powerful drama.

The tale of midwives in London's poverty-ridden East End in the 1950s, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, is now into its third season, with a fourth to come. It has struck a chord with an audience perhaps not so much yearning for the past, as fascinated and inspired by the struggles of those who came before us. The show's subject matter puts the challenges of medical care in a less advanced age front and centre. In last week's opener to season three, the midwives were baffled by a mystery illness threatening a baby boy's life, a stark reminder of how precarious life could be for those lacking the knowledge and resources we take for granted.

Another major attraction of Call The Midwife is the gloriously named Chummy Noakes, played by Miranda Hart. Hart is well known as possibly the funniest woman on the planet, and the adoration for the ghosts of TV past that shines through in her eponymous sitcom makes her a natural fit for this period piece. But she's not there simply for comic relief: in the season opener, Chummy plays hero on two fronts, publicising the midwives' new antenatal clinic, and coming to the rescue at a difficult birth.

Chummy's a perfect example of the peculiar beauty of the show. Its view of history is not a grand, globe-spanning one, or one focused on great statesmen and momentous conflict. It's a story of tiny local struggles, of women not destined to become celebrities, but whose strength and devotion to helping their fellow human beings had them fight life-and-death battles on the field we all know so well, and that strikes most fiercely at the human heart. 

Call The Midwife is a show that brings to life times past while at the same time portraying the joy and pain and fear of life - and particularly new life - that is so utterly universal. It's a show that makes one want to be a better person.

Watch Call the Midwife on ABC1, Thursdays, on 8.30pm, or catch up on iView.