'Call The Midwife' Season 12 Brings New Tensions & a Singing Nun to Poplar

Picture shows: A pregnant Asian woman Zoya Patel (Hiral Varsani) in labor is helped by Nurse Shelagh Turner (Laura Main) while Sister Veronica (Rebecca Gethings) looks on.

Zoya Patel (Hiral Varsani), Nurse Shelagh Turner (Laura Main) andSister Veronica (Rebecca Gethings).

Courtesy of BBC / Neal Street Productions /Olly Courtenay

Nonnatus House reaches 1968 in a spring cleaning frenzy, eagerly anticipating the arrival of a new face, Sister Veronica (Rebecca Gethings). With the headcount reduced to two nuns, Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) and Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter), spiritual and medical reinforcement is vital to Nonnatus. Worries about overwhelming her with a lavish teatime spread are unnecessary; Sister Veronica is not shy and bursts into Nonnatus House full of energy and confidence. She can sing, too, a major concern of Monica Joan. Noisy and busy, Sister Veronica disrupts routines and effortlessly offends her colleagues.

Sister Veronica came to the order in perfect health and has no serious illnesses, hospitalizations, or surgeries in the intervening year. Her propensity for tactical falsehoods, however, remains an enduring flaw.

Nurse Nancy Corrigan (Megan Cusack), now newly qualified, is assigned to the care of a terminal cancer patient Olive Macketts (Clare Burt), spending her last days at home with landlady Jessie Parris (Stella Gonet), against hospital advice. Their apartment has an artsy, sophisticated vibe. Olive’s window is hung with prisms that send colored light into the room, and the windows are open to the sounds of Poplar, where she was born. Olive and Jessie are retired teachers of art and physics, respectively, and they used prisms in their classes.

On the initial visit with Dr. Patrick Turner (Stephen McGann), he lays out the pain management treatment they will provide but warns Nurse Nancy afterward Olive’s suffering may prove too much, and she’ll beg for mercy. Do not, he warns the young nurse, let that happen.

Picture shows: Nurse Nancy Corrigan (Megan Cusack) tends to patient Olive Macketts (Clare Burt).

Nurse Nancy Corrigan (Megan Cusack) tends to patient Olive Macketts (Clare Burt).

Credit: Courtesy of BBC / Neal Street Productions /Olly Courtenay

Nurse Nancy wins the trust of her patient and her “landlady,” the cover story Olive and Jessie use to hide their LGBTQ+ relationship. As Olive fades, Nurse Nancy becomes concerned about her kidney function and suggests they should consider hospitalization. But after hearing Jessie’s story of how they spent the last 25 years hiding in plain sight as landlady and lodger, "We didn’t even get a dog in case it would obey us equally and give the game away," Nancy thanks her –– of course, she should know: “I’m her nurse, and you make her feel better.”

That evening, Nurse Nancy shares what she’s learned with Nurse Phyllis and Nurse Trixie. Nancy is still trying to take it in, but Phyllis assures her she’s met LGBTQ+ women before without knowing it, and Nancy (having had an illegitimate child) knows it’s not laws that rule this country; it’s attitudes. If Olive is hospitalized, Jessie won’t be able to be with her until the end.

Nurse Trixie joins Nancy in Olive’s care, bringing back memories of when she nursed Fiona, her fiancé Matthew’s deceased wife. Olive dies peacefully in her partner’s arms, and Nurse Trixie helps Jessie dress her in a Land Army shirt. Jessie says poignantly, “I’d put a prism in the coffin, but there’s no light there.” Nurse Nancy wants to help Jessie and Olive again and asks Miss Higgins (Georgie Glen) for advice. The death certificate is the last opportunity for Jessie to legitimize her relationship with Olive, but as far as the law is concerned, there is no connection she can claim. Miss Higgins says to add Jessie’s name as “present at death.” 

Picture shows: Nurse Lucille Robinson (Leonie Elliott)

Nurse Lucille Robinson (Leonie Elliott).

Courtesy of BBC / Neal Street Productions /Olly Courtenay

Nurse Lucille Robinson (Leonie Elliott) still grieves for her lost pregnancy and hasn’t conceived again. She visits pregnant Greta Pickard (Phoebe Thomas), who stands all day at work and has developed a bad case of varicose veins. Nurse Lucille is concerned, and Dr. Turner makes a follow-up visit, where he finds her daughter also has an abscessed tooth. Sister Veronica comes into her own as a Health Visitor, telling Greta about her N.H.S. benefits (including dentistry) and applying for the two children to receive free school lunches. Greta’s husband Wally (Richard James-Neale), a mostly-unemployed dock worker, political activist, and pub customer rants his family won’t accept charity. The two women ignore him.

On her next visit to Greta, Nurse Lucille brings a pair of support hose. Greta has been given a “stew” by her Asian neighbor and is equally fearful of the spices and of hurting her neighbor’s feelings. Nurse Lucille is happy to smuggle the food out, and she and Cyril enjoy it for dinner. For dessert, Cyril produces an envelope of photographs from her family back in Jamaica of her sister’s wedding. But Lucille’s joy turns to tears as she realizes how sad and homesick she is.

Meanwhile, it’s April 20, 1968, and Shadow Cabinet Minister for Defence Enoch Powell just made his infamous viciously racist River of Blood speech ahead of Labour’s controversial Race Relations Bill’s second reading. It’s a Saturday; people are home to hear it. Fred turns it off, but Cyril and Lucille listen. Despite Nurse Phyllis saying her home is in England, however homesick for Jamaica she might be, Lucille’s mood plummets. The speech is violently divisive; London’s dockers, joined by the Smithfield porters, go on strike to support Powell and march on Parliament. On Nurse Phyllis’s next visit to Greta, Wally rants the N.H.S. is stressed by immigrants.

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Dazed from his first encounter with Sister Veronica, who turned down every bicycle he showed her, Fred Buckle (Cliff Parisi) returns home to learn the Civil Defence organization has disbanded. He’s been serving in uniform since 1939 and takes it badly. “I feel ... finished,” he confesses to his wife Violet (Annabelle Apsion), who assures him she’ll keep him busy in the shop. For instance, there’s some painting to be done, and their saga of the very purple paint begins. (It’s named “Purple Heart,” a nickname for a popular amphetamine.)

Sister Veronica insists she cannot bike due to health problems; she’s missing half a lung. Sister Julienne is shocked, writing to the Mother House, only to learn it's a lie. When challenged, Sister Veronica shamelessly refers to her lies as “embellishments” and demands a car. If that hadn’t already put Sister Julienne’s nose out of joint, she becomes even angrier when encountering purple paint at Nonnatus. How did it get there? After Violet rejected the color –– “This is a respectable neighborhood haberdashery, not one of those fleshpots of Carnaby Street” –– Cyrill turned it down, so he took the paint to Nonnatus House, much to the delight of Sister Monica Joan, who loves it: “The color of intense ecclesiastical potential!”

Sister Julienne sets it outside, where it's picked up for the protest signs. When Cyrill confronts Fred for inadvertently helping the demonstrators, Fred gets angry, turns down a porter’s invitation to join, and refuses free cigarettes. Shortly after the car leaves, there’s the sound of a crash and screams. Fred rushes outside to find the porter had knocked down a little Asian girl. The porter, horrified, gives his white coat as a pillow and offers to find her mother, his instincts as a good neighbor and friend overriding his political views. Fred decides to get a new uniformed job: A lollipop man! (That's a school crossing guard.)

Picture shows: Fred Buckle (Cliff Parisi) in his new job. He's wearing a white coat and a black cap and holding a sign that reads "STOP-CHILDREN." Because the sign is round, it looks like a lollipop, hence the name "lollipop man."

Fred Buckle (Cliff Parisi), Poplar's newest lollipop man.

Credit: Courtesy of BBC / Neal Street Productions /Olly Courtenay

At Nonnatus House’s maternity home, Greta is in labor, attended by Nurse Lucille, when another patient, Zoya Patel (Hiral Varsani), arrives for the birth of her first child. She is further along in her labor than Greta and is rushed into the delivery room. Greta is becoming increasingly demanding and irritated and complains loudly about immigrants, ending with “Not you” to Nurse Lucille. She’s had enough: “I’m sorry, but you mean me. I came to make Britain my home and didn’t expect to be made unwelcome.” Lucille walks out, briefly stopping to tell Miss Higgins she’s left.

Zoya’s labor has slowed, and Nurse Shelagh Turner (Laura Main) and Dr. Turner are concerned. Her waters have broken, but meconium is present, indicating the baby is in distress and his head is not exactly where it should be. Dr. Turner uses forceps, and there’s a tense moment as Nurse Shelagh clears the baby’s airways, but all is well. Meanwhile, Sister Veronica takes over the delivery of Greta’s little girl with a mixture of good cheer and cheekiness. She even gets a bit misty-eyed when the baby appears. Greta will name her Marie, a name in her family for years, ever since they came over as silk workers from France (!).

Later that night, Zoya is concerned that one of their babies is crying, and Greta takes her into the next room where Nurse Phyllis is holding Marie, who’s bawling her head off, while Hussein is fast asleep. The two women bond over their newborns. Sister Julienne and Nurse Lucille talk about her desertion of a patient, and Lucille can admit how bad things are. She is put on sick leave but tells Cyril she wants to go home. He gently responds that going home isn’t the answer, and he can’t get time off work. Besides, they’re saving for a house that will be their home.

Picture shows: Sister Veronica (Rebecca Gethings) leads the way on her new scooter, followed by Nurse Trixie Franklin (Helen George) and Nurse Phyllis Crane (Linda Bassett) on their bicycles.

Sister Veronica (Rebecca Gethings) leads the way on her new scooter, followed by Nurse Trixie Franklin (Helen George) and Nurse Phyllis Crane (Linda Bassett).

Credit: Courtesy of BBC / Neal Street Productions /Olly Courtenay

Nurse Trixie has been juggling her work with wedding planning, and of course, she’s super organized. Matthew Aylward (Olly Rix) jokes (probably) that he’d like to add golf clubs to the wedding register. Trixie has everything planned, down to what outfit she’ll wear to have afternoon tea with Fiona’s parents, but she’s nervous about meeting them. When Matthew comes to pick her up, she’s changing outfits, and Sister Veronica swoops down on him.

She warns him she’s going to tell him about her health problems and that he should steel himself. Yes, she shamelessly hits Matthew up for a more leisurely form of transport, and he funds a scooter and provides driving advice. Let's hope Sister Julienne doesn't hear the full details. Trixie overcomes her reservations about meeting Matthew’s in-laws, and a photograph of Matthew, his toddler son Jonty, Trixie, and Fiona’s parents shows them all smiling happily.

What a great first episode! And there's more to come. PBS Passport members are able to view episodes early; otherwise, check your local listings for Call The Midwife on Sunday evenings.

Janet Mullany

Writer Janet Mullany is from England, drinks a lot of tea, and likes Jane Austen, reading, and gasping in shock at costumes in historical TV dramas. Her household near Washington DC includes two badly-behaved cats about whom she frequently boasts on Facebook.

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