Happy Christmas! If you're reading this, you must have just recently watched the latest Call the Midwife holiday special, most likely while enjoying a lovely cuppa with a delicious mince pie or piece of snowman cake. Our friends from Poplar encountered adversity this Christmas season, but as usual, kindness and joy outweighed the sorrow. Let's take a look back at this eventful episode.
It’s 1963 and Christmas festivities in Poplar are well underway. Fred Buckle (Cliff Parisi) is taking his portrayal of Father Christmas in a new, modern direction. His wife Violet (Annabelle Apsion) is none too pleased as he rides his rocket sled pulled by metallic space elves, spewing Christmas sweets through the streets of their East London neighborhood.
Meanwhile busy nurse, mother and wife Shelagh Turner (Laura Main) is taking some time away from work over the holiday season and so must acquaint substitute nurse Miss Higgins (Georgie Glen) to the routines of the surgery. As usual, she's having difficulty loosening the reins of control. Outside, the Turners wait for her in a brand new turquoise blue station wagon, big enough for a family of five, a seven-foot tree and possibly a Christmas rabbit. When Tim (Max Macmillan) asks for a dog, his mother puts her foot down saying there’s not room for another living creature in their car or their lives.
At Nonnatus House, everyone is eagerly anticipating Trixie’s return. (You may recall she left for Italy after a drinking relapse.) She will be met with balloons, a banner and an adorable snowman cake with chopped up green jelly grass. Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter) interrupts the preparations to inform the other nuns that the head of their order, Mother Jesu Emanuel is dying. This means they are all being called to the Mother House to elect a new spiritual leader. Though Sisters Winifred (Victoria Yeates) and Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) are reluctant to leave Poplar, Julienne says they are also needed to help care for a group of orphans arriving from Hong Kong. Later, Julienne assures Nurse Crane (Linda Bassett) that she will be back by Christmas, but we all suspect she’s a top contender for the position of Mother Superior.
The doorbell brings everyone to the foyer but instead of Trixie, they find the indefatigable Sister Mildred (Miriam Margolyes) on the stoop with a young girl in her arms and three more in the taxi. Fog and an AWOL child care officer have delayed her journey to the Mother House so she has shown up at Nonnatus instead, hoping her Sisters will take them all in for the night. Thus, when Trixie (Helen George) finally arrives, no one is there to greet her. They’re all still at the table with Sister Mildred and her brood discussing the abandonment of the orphans by their Chinese refugee parents in acts of love and desperation. The girls will be going to wonderful homes, but there aren’t enough Chinese families in the area to provide for all the children in this project.
At last Trixie finds everyone in the dining room and they rush to greet their friend with a decent cup of tea after her long journey from Portofino. Later, in a very touching gesture, Phyllis gives Nurse Franklin a cardigan belonging to the recently deceased Barbara Hereward. The nurses share a tearful hug. “One way or another,” says Nurse Crane, “we’re going to have a happy Christmas.”
The next morning’s post brings greetings and updates from former Nonnatus staff and friends. Dr. Turner (Stephen McGann) shows up to see Sister Monica Joan who has, unbeknownst to the others, come down with a suspiciously sudden case of abdominal pain. Patrick prescribes morphine and a few days bed rest thus giving the elderly nun her desired result: No trip to the Mother House. We learn shortly thereafter that Sister Monica Joan has never been very keen on visiting her order’s home base.
“Once it was a place where I found my new beginning. Now it is where I will likely meet my end nursed in a narrow bed, tenderly cared for but without the purpose that comes from engagement with the world.”
At the lovely seaside locale of the Nonnatus Mother House, we find two nuns. As they wait for Sisters Mildred, Winifred and Julienne to arrive with the new orphans, a car pulls up and a heavily pregnant woman gets out. When addressed by Sister Hilda (Fenalla Woolgar), she visibly panics, narrowly missing Fred’s van as she flees. Thankfully the Poplar gang is fine, and they file into the abbey.
As the first order of business, Sister Hilda takes Julienne to Mother Jesu Emmanuel’s exceedingly messy office. The Superior had been struggling with her duties longer than they had realized. Risking indiscretion, Hilda says Julienne is the only one who can step into the leader’s shoes. Julienne makes it clear her work is in Poplar, but she will do what she can to tame the chaos.
Back on her rounds, Trixie makes a surprise visit to one of her former patients, Mavis Hollier (Bronwyn James) who has decided to give birth this time in the luxury of St. Cuthbert’s maternity ward. Apparently, the hospitals are telling women there are a hundred good reasons to have their babies in a clinical setting and word is getting around.
Returning to the Mother House, we are introduced to some of the orphans with special needs. Fred notices a little girl who, like Reggie, has Down Syndrome. Sister Winfred asks about a boy named Neil sitting in a crib. Brain damaged at birth, Neil is spoon-fed away from the other children and is not up for adoption.
The next morning, Sister Julienne is summoned to the Superior’s beside. The women reminisce about their novice vows and the smell of Nivea hand cream. Mother Jesu Emmanuel (Marty Cruickshank) tells Julienne that she is the only one with the intellect and the heart for the job. She also suggests that God sees that Julienne is the right choice and will guide the Sisters accordingly. Though she obediently kisses the Mother’s hand, Julienne is visibly upset at the prospect of giving up the work she feels called to do in Poplar.
Motivated by his visit to the orphanage, Fred collects some discarded toys with the intention to fix them up for the children who have so little. Violet nixes the plan when she spots fleas on a dingy Scotty dog on wheels, insisting no child wants to wake up to broken toys that people have thrown out.
Tasked with bringing administrative order to the Mother House, Julienne enlists the help of her highly organized and very dear friend, Shelagh Turner. Mrs. Turner arrives by train with a large tin of mince pies in hand and Sister Julienne greets her with a warm and grateful hug. Looking at an old photograph of Evangelina, Julienne, Monica Joan and Shelagh (back in her Bernadette days), the women discuss the nature of their calling. Julienne confides that the current Superior is lying upstairs willing her succession and the prayers of the dying are very potent. Shelagh replies that just because Mother Jesu wants it very much doesn’t mean it’s what is right. When asked what Julienne desires, she responds that as a religious sister she’s not allowed to want anything.
Soon after, the Hong Kong orphans’ adoptive parents arrive to meet their daughters for the first time. Sister Winifred, who has gotten very involved with all the children, tries to occupy those who are feeling left out, especially an older girl named Denise. Suddenly Winifred is startled by a face at the window which causes our mystery pregnant lady to flee once more. Describing the woman as distressed, Sister Winifred thinks they should call the police. To make matters worse, the family planning to adopt three-year-old May has yet to show up.
When the nuns meet for tea, we learn that May’s new father has been diagnosed with tuberculous and will be in a sanitorium for up to a year. Until he returns home, his wife feels unable to proceed with the adoption. Sister Mildred explains that May’s birth mother was a Chinese refugee who turned to prostitution. The woman came for her daughter on several occasions but returned her to the orphanage each time. Mildred said that May’s mother had love but needed courage and common sense more. One of the other sisters complains that tea is usually a silent meal, but Mildred says this is not a usual day.
Meanwhile back in Poplar, a laboring Mavis Hollier and her husband have arrived at St. Cuthbert’s and are waiting for admission. The matron tells Mavis she’s been accepted for an emergency bed… at St. Julian’s, a hospital on the other side of the borough. She could wait an hour for transportation or find her own way there. Incredulous about this turn of events, Mavis and her husband Bobby head off to the other hospital on foot. As her labor intensifies, Mr. Hollier attempts to call an ambulance from a phone box but, finding it out of order, he runs to Nonnatus House for help instead. As he pounds on the door, Trixie is showing off the little black dress her godmother bought her in Paris. The midwives jump into action immediately with Trixie and Nurse Dyer (Jennifer Kirby) rushing to Mavis while Nurse Anderson (Leonie Elliott) summons an ambulance from the convent.
Once initial checks are done, it’s clear the Hollier baby will be born on the street. Valerie takes the role of Mavis’ Cockney cheerleader. After a few position adjustments, a baby boy is born and Trixie covers him with Barbara’s cardigan. The ambulance finally arrives, and they take the mother and her newborn son to the maternity hospital. Mavis is considering calling him Nicholas after Father Christmas. She’s also learned an important lesson about unsubstantiated promises. On the other hand, for Trixie a ruined couture dress proved to be less important than bringing a new life safely into the world.
On her third appearance at the Mother House, Sister Winifred finally convinces the skittish pregnant woman to talk to her. Her name is Lena (Christie Sullivan) and it turns out she was brought to this orphanage from Poplar after her parents died. She was separated from her little brother because he had a club foot. She never saw him again after she was driven off in a bus. Eventually she was sent to Australia on the Children’s Farm School scheme. Far from being the wonderful opportunity the nuns had been told, Lena said it killed some children and it nearly killed her.
Shelagh sets about trying to find Lena’s records in the Superior’s office. All they know is that she was sent directly to a farm where she was put straight to work and treated brutally. She later married an older man and when he died, she used the small amount of money she inherited to return to England. The paperwork Shelagh's found is sketchy possibly because the order only liaised with charities who sent children to Australia. Or as Winifred suggests, the records might just be sketchy on purpose. Whatever the reason, Shelagh says everyone’s story deserves to be told.
The next time the nuns gather for tea, Sister Hilda announces voting will take place the day after tomorrow and advises them to choose one whose grasp of the religious life will lead them forward with confidence and grace. Then she plugs Julienne for the spot by mentioning Mother Jesu Emmanuel’s commendation for her swift establishment of good governance in the office. Hilda goes on to ask Winifred how much she’s looking forward to going back to Poplar. Nervously, Winifred declares that she wants to stay at the Mother House to care for the children. Her Sisters caution her that they must obediently go where they are called to which Winifred defiantly responds that there is a difference between going where they are called by God and doing what they are told by human beings.
Sister Mildred then delivers an eloquent speech about the quarrel they seem to be having that is actually within themselves.
“The quarrel defines us. It drives us forwards, upwards, to our knees in prayer. You must embrace the quarrel. The quarrel will lead us to the answer. It is everything we are.”
After all that, Winifred still says she feels called to stay there and she doesn’t care who’s calling her.
Meanwhile, Poplar residents continue to do what they can to make Christmas bright for others. Fred has “inherited” a donkey from his sketchy friend Nolly, the one who let him down when he needed a reindeer for his Santa appearance. Fred and Reggie try to hide the animal at their allotment, feeding him pilfered parsnips and Brussel sprouts, and keeping him out of Violet’s sight for the time being. Later Reggie suggests giving the donkey to the orphans.
Dr. Turner brings the family’s sentimental old silver Christmas tree to the surgery as a gift to the Holliers. Tim calls asking what happened to their tree adding that Angela is broken hearted. Patrick reminds them they already have a tree, and so much more.
As the nuns consider the candidates for their new leadership, Sister Julienne and Shelagh are busy delivering Lena’s baby. The scared young woman wants to get good marks like she was never able to do on the farm. She also believes it was Julienne holding her brother’s hand on the day Lena left Poplar for the orphanage. She always felt he’d be alright. When her baby boy is finally born, he’s perfect and completely hers. She names him Billy, after her brother.
Shelagh resumes her detective work by calling the surgery for records on Lena and Billy from before the war. She also procures as many angel and animal costumes as Violet Buckle can rustle up so the orphans can put on their own nativity play.
Voting day finally arrives and the Sisters cast their ballots. Afterwards, Julienne and Shelagh take May to the beach. Julienne wants to do something of her choosing, i.e. sneak a ciggie. They are just about to light up when the bells ring calling them back for the results. To Julienne’s relief, Sister Mildred is chosen as the Superior and in her first official act as spiritual leader she requests Sister Winifred remain at the Mother House to work in the orphanage. She will send two more Sisters to Poplar to help Julienne in due course.
The Turners, Trixie, Valerie, Fred and his family pack up both costumes and donkey and head to the Mother House. Miss Higgins is close behind with Lena’s brother, Billy. He tells Lena he did well in school, got a job in weights and measures and married a girl from the typing pool. He has no kids, but it's a nice life all the same. Billy tries to comfort his weeping sister and she reminds him that if she doesn’t stop crying, the bus won’t go. He wants Lena and the baby to come home with him. (Yeah, I cried at this part. You?)
And as if we didn’t know, the Turner family is about to grow as well. Shelagh suggests fostering May until she can go with her adoptive family. Patrick agrees that they have plenty and they are always expanding.
The Poplar contingent returns from the Mother House, just in time for Christmas. When they enter the convent, they find Lucille’s church friends in the chapel belting out "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing". She invited them over because she didn’t want Sister Monica Joan to celebrate this holy day alone. Ah, the beauty of interdenominational harmony!
So it looks as though we won't be seeing Sister Winifred much in the coming season, but we'll be gaining two new Sisters in her place. From what I've read, it will be Sisters Hilda and Frances. We've also been told Tom Hereward is with Barbara's dad in New Guinea so we won't be seeing him around Poplar this year. Are you happy Sister Julienne wasn't elected the new Mother Superior? That Trixie is back and as fashionable as ever? Let's chat about the special and your hopes for the new season to come in the spring of 2019.