Winter has definitely come to Poplar and this year’s Call the Midwife holiday special dramatizes an actual event in English weather history called the Big Freeze of 1962-63. The Thames froze over and for 62 consecutive days, snow lay on the ground across the south of the country.
For the midwives the season starts out with all the usual holiday preparations and plans. Nurse Dyer (Jennifer Kirby) is at Violet Buckle’s (Annabelle Apsion) shop getting fitted for her Jack and the Beanstalk pantomime costume. Fred (Cliff Parisi) arrives dressed as Father Christmas only to be thrown a change of wardrobe. He’ll be carrying on the great English tradition of pantomime dames by playing Jack’s mother, naturally.
Nurse Franklin (Helen George) has Christmas plans of an up-scale nature; she and her dentist beau, Christopher (Jack Hawkins) are taking a skiing vacation to Zurich. Ever the fashion plate, Trixie is more concerned with her apres-ski wardrobe than the her time on the slopes.
At the Nonnatus House Christmas party, Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) surprises everyone with the return of their television set. (Yes, the one that had been “donated” to the Seaman’s Mission by Sister Ursula.) Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) was most overjoyed!
The weather begins to turn on Boxing Day and by the next morning, Poplar residents wake to find two feet of snow on the ground and no delivery from the milkman.
Sister Monica Joan says their standards have slipped seeing as they delivered uninterrupted during the Blitz. As if milkless tea isn’t bad enough, the former Nurse Gilbert, now Hereward (Charlotte Ritchie) calls by the house to report a pipe burst at the community center which has affected the electrical system. The fire brigade says they’ll have to close down so Julienne goes in search of a temporary location for their clinic and Valerie’s aunt’s pub is seconded for the purpose.
Just as Patrick (Stephen McGann) is set to head off to the pub/clinic himself, an elderly man named Percy Tillerson (Peter Quince) stops in at the office with a bad burn on this leg. Of course, the good doctor sees to his blisters and advises him the dressings will need changed. He offers to send a nurse to his home, but the man mentions his wife is lame and insists he’ll come in to the surgery to have them changed.
Nurse Crane (Linda Bassett) is driving herself and Sister Julienne to the pub too when they are stopped by a walrus-mustachioed policeman called Sgt. Woolf (Trevor Cooper) who tells them passenger cars and average drivers aren’t allowed down by the wharf due to dangerous road conditions. Nurse Crane, as she loves to do, informs him that she is a member of the advanced motorists club and she has winterized her car with tire chains and so proceeds past the bewildered officer. You know a feud is brewing there.
At the pub, Valerie sees a new unmarried mother-to-be, Linda Openshaw (Francene Turner). Her boyfriend, Selwyn (Joel Morris), is a roofer who has come to London for a job. He’s not the baby’s father, but wants to marry her anyway. Since she is upset and there is little privacy at the pub, Valerie offers to do the exam at Linda’s home. She's embarrassed that they live in a caravan, but like any good midwife, Valerie is not judgmental about any of it.
It would appear that the car Phyllis had so much confidence was no match for the storm. The weather has interfered also with Trixie’s ski plans. The airport has closed and Christopher can’t even make it back to his house. Julienne offers the dentist their guest room. Predictably Sgt. Woolf shows up and commands Nurse Crane’s vehicle off the road, winterized tires or no. Burn!
Rev. Hereward (Jack Ashton) comes home after attending to a lonely, dying sailor. He tells Barbara that he has been asked to temporarily transfer to a parish in Birmingham to serve as a curate, the same as what he’s doing in Poplar. He's not keen on leaving and isn’t sure why, or even if, God is calling him to do this.
The cold deepens…
Trixie is upset that Christopher caught a glance of her in her curlers in the hallway. Valerie says, as a dentist, he has had scientific training so he knows that her hair doesn’t look like that naturally. Meanwhile Sister Winifred (Victoria Yeates) succeeds in breaking the toilet while trying to crack apart the frozen water in the bowl. Fortunately, the outhouse is still functional and Christopher charges Sister Monica Joan with keeping boiling water at the ready.
Valerie makes her promised visit to Linda at the caravan. The young woman is still not sure if she wants to marry Selwyn. How can he love another man’s baby? Valerie doesn’t know, but Selwyn thinks he can and sometimes thinking you can gets you halfway there.
Arctic conditions persist – milkmen are exhausted and given the day off (you can virtually hear the midwives’ eyes roll) and the locals are getting water from a standpipe in the street. A sewer line bursts nearby and Dr. Turner warns Fred the drinking water could be contaminated by the sewer. Boys are playing in the vicinity and come across a hand buried in the snow. Fred uncovers a dead man with a paraffin bucket similar to that of Dr. Turner’s burn patient. Turns out it is Mr. Tillerson and he died of hypothermia.
Later in his office, Dr. Turner is frustrated that his wife’s temporary replacement has not shown up to work. Sister Julienne appears right on cue and Dr. Turner asks her if she will go break the news to Mr. Tillerson’s wife. Meanwhile, Shelagh (Laura Main) who has been thoroughly enjoying being home with her newborn son, Teddy, has forced herself into her girdle to sets out rescue her husband and get his surgery in order.
Valerie is called out on what she assumes will be a reassurance visit only to find Linda Openshaw in active labor four weeks early. Selwyn asks if he needs to go for help. Valerie tells him she is the help and so is he.
Julienne goes to the Tillerson’s flat and sees through the mail slot that Mabel Tillerson (Anita Dobson) is unconscious in her chair. The nun asks the neighbors to help her break in the door. The flat is very cold and it appears Mabel was in a confused state of hypothermia. She frets that Percy won’t like they broke the door and that he doesn’t like women showing their flesh. Julienne tells her Percy has died. His wife says her husband liked being in charge, but he had no say in his own end and she’s glad. Julienne asks if she would like her to tell Mabel’s children about Percy’s death. Her son Edwin died in the war. He left home to get away from his physically abusive father. Her daughter Anthea ran away and Mabel was glad of that too as the girl was molested by Mr. Tillerson. Mabel doesn’t know where Anthea is.
But never fear, Shelagh is back at work and on the case. She tracks down the office records for Anthea. They reveal that at her last visit there were signs of a beating and she was pregnant at fifteen years of age.
Back at the caravan, though the delivery seemed to go smoothly, Linda’s baby boy is not responsive. Despite Valerie performing mouth-to-mouth on the infant, he is stillborn. Selwyn asks to hold the child, but Linda doesn’t want to look at him so Valerie puts him in her nursing bag. Selwyn gives her a hot water bottle to keep him warm. Trixie shows up on the hunch that there must be a problem since Nurse Dyer had been gone so long. She commiserates that it’s the worst thing that can happen to a midwife, but Valerie clarifies that it happened to the parents, not her.
Trixie stays to look after and console Linda and Selwyn. Nurse Dyer walks back to Nonnatus house with the bag and a heavy heart. Suddenly she hears a sound - the baby is alive and crying. Shocked, she calls for help. Valerie is distraught that she got it so wrong and Barbara tries to comfort her as the midwives go to work on the infant. It appears the hot water bottle kept the baby’s temperature stable and Valerie did expand his lungs, but hadn’t realize it worked.
Afterwards, Valerie returns to the caravan with the baby in an ambulance. Trixie explains to the parents in a very nice way that their child survived after all. Nice job of glossing over the fact that Valerie left them shattered and grieving as she bundled their live infant away in a carryall.
The next day, Nurse Crane rounds up her cub pack to build an igloo. Reggie (Daniel Laurie), who has been staying with the Buckles over the holiday, is brought in to assist. Then Sgt. Woolf barges in and orders the boys to evacuate the dangerous structure and instructs Phyllis to knock it down. She insists it is in aid of a building badge, but he tells her she can’t “blind him with scouting science.” It’s a deathtrap and she should have them do something useful.
Armed with an address from Mrs. Turner, Sister Julienne goes to visit Mabel’s daughter, Anthea (Rebecca Callard). She has a home full of foster children and has never raised a hand to any of the thirty kids that she has looked after. She’s expecting her fourth child any day as well. Anthea is bitter, not just that her father raped her weekly, but that her mother allowed it to happen. And FYI, she didn’t run away. After it was discovered she was pregnant, her father threw her out of the house. Her mother put a ten bob note in her pocket before she left but she never spent it. (We find out later that was Mabel’s escape money that she kept hidden in her corset, but was too afraid to use). Is it any wonder Anthea refuses to come to the funeral?
At the hospital, Linda wants to name the baby after Selwyn in some way. They go with his middle name, John. They ask Tom to bless their child because it means he will be blessing them too. It looks like their ordeal has brought them together as a couple.
Soon after, Barbara finds Tom in the kitchen. He has salvaged the water-logged beanstalk and is working on getting businesses in the area to sponsor a dinner for the elderly. In addition, Madame Edith has agreed to resurrect the panto performance and it will all take place at the community center.
More importantly, Tom has finally decided to accept the Birmingham assignment. It was Violet Buckle who reminded him that it doesn’t matter where we’re from or where we are going as long as we hold on to one another. Wherever he goes his work will have the same meaning. The Herewards check with Sister Julienne to see if she will take Barbara back in six months to which she replies they will always need good midwives, especially in this fractured world. She likes the idea of the dinner and panto very much.
Then comes the customary and always touching chat that Sister Monica Joan has with a troubled soul. She’s noticed that Valerie has not been sleeping well and intuits that she is ruminating over recent events. Valerie lets her know she doesn’t believe in God, but the wise nun says that doesn’t matter. Nurse Dyer did her job and God finished it or, as the sister so poetically phrased it, “Often the hands of God are found at the end of our own arms.” Monica Joan has also squirreled away some milk in the woodshed which she kindly proceeds to offer to Valerie.
Speaking of milk, discontented residents of Poplar are congregating on the steps of the local dairy. Sgt. Woolf is present to quell any possible unrest. The milk has reached the dairy, but they have no bottles to put it in. Turns out Nurse Crane has a cunning plan. She recruits Fred and his Civil Defense chums to help her, Reggie and the Cub Scouts dig out the bottles hidden in the snow drifts around the neighborhood. They return victorious and the formerly surly crowd cheers as the milk floats head out to make their delivery rounds. Sgt. Woolf salutes Phyllis to which she responds, “I like a man who gives credit when its due.” Has Nurse Crane met her match? Watch this space!
Sister Julienne stops by Anthea’s place again where the family is celebrating the arrival of her new daughter. The nun has brought a gift and asks if Anthea would like her to tell Mabel about the baby. She just wants to leave all that buried and not just her father. Julienne informs Anthea that her mother will be attending the dinner for the elderly and the panto then leaves her to get on with the happiness that she deserves.
The day of the dinner and performance arrives. Besides Fred and Valerie, we see Trixie and Christopher have agreed to play Jack’s cow, Tim is providing piano accompaniment and Angela is a magic bean. Anthea shows up with a small bouquet of flowers for her mother. She tried to buy them with the money Mabel gave her years ago, but it’s from the past. It seems that the rift between mother and daughter has a chance of mending after all.
The panto concludes with an audience sing-a-long of “Sealed with a Kiss.” Tom and Barbara take their leave before the end in order to catch their train to Birmingham. They pause under the mistletoe and share kiss before departing.
Did you enjoy Poplar’s version of a winter wonderland? On a one to ten hankie scale, how much of a tear-jerker do you rate this episode? What about that groovy version of musical chairs? And did anyone else notice that Nonnatus House is down to three nuns, one of which is retired? Share your thoughts about this festive episode in the comments and let’s hope we don’t experience a Big Freeze of our own this Christmas!