By John Rennie
WHEN WE originally wrote about Call the Midwife a few years ago, it seemed likely that Jennifer Worth’s book would join the ranks of hundreds of other East End memoirs – if better written and more entertaining than most of them. Little likelihood, it seemed then, that Worth (who retained her East End links long after she’d moved out of London, through
membership of the East London History Society). The book was actually a classic ‘sleeper’, selling steadily in local East End bookshops (and increasingly on Amazon of course) for years before the BBC picked it up.
It was an unlikely, though profitable autumn in her life, and as so often it happened by chance. As we wrote when reporting on Jennifer’s death: “She was in her sixties before she embarked on the career that gave her fame. Husband Philip recalls her leafing through a magazine on midwifery and chancing upon an article by midwife, Terri Coates: who argued that somebody should do for midwives what novelist James Herriot had done for vets. “Why not?” thought Jenny and began to pour her memories onto the page. Call the Midwife (2002) and Shadows of the Workhouse (2005) were steady rather than meteoric sellers at first. It was only when they were reissued in 2007 and 2008 that they really took off. A follow-up in 2009, Farewell to the East End was another hit, and TV would soon come calling.”
There are things to cherish about the TV series (Miranda Hart does a superb balancing act between comedy and drama) and the sugar is usually well complemented by a hefty dose of reality: lest we get too sentimental about how great the old East End was, we’re brought back to earth by illness, death and misery, no bad thing! There are things which work less well – in your writer’s opinion, a little Vanessa Redgrave in deathlessly
serious voice-over mode goes a long way – but it’s a terrific reminder of the struggles into the early days of healthcare in the Welfare State, as we used to call it. So don’t stop there. It’s all in Worth’s excellent writing. Take a look at her other books: you won’t be disappointed.