Final year History of Art and Design student Lily Chadwick discusses the presentation – and erasure – of homosexuality in the BBC’s TV show Call the Midwife
Call the Midwife first appeared on UK television screens in January 2012 and is now in its seventh series, with two more currently commissioned. As a show, Call the Midwife aims to present ideas of difference (or ‘otherness’) through a longstanding theme of ‘overcoming barriers’. Issues of race, ethics, religion, class, morals, and of course illness, birth and death are covered respectfully, albeit often through a ‘rose-tinted’ lens, and the show, as a whole, appears feminist in its presentation, with a direct focus on women and women’s issues.
Where the show seems to fall short, I believe, is in its presentation of homosexuality. The character of Patience ‘Patsy’ Mount is first introduced in series three and her love-interest Delia Busby is introduced later in the series. The show handles this representation of ‘otherness’ like it does any other, by presenting a barrier for them to overcome. In the case of the couple they are actually presented with two consecutively: firstly, a devastating head-injury leaves Delia with substantial memory-loss and, secondly, shortly after the pair are reunited, Patsy is called away to Hong Kong to care for her dying father. Much of the relationship of the couple is shown on screen through knowing glances and lingering touches but no open discussion of their sexuality, the couple have only one on-screen kiss (described by The Sun as ‘steamy’) despite their relationship (in terms of the show) existing for a number of years. This presentation is, of course, fitting with the early-1960s perception of homosexuality as ‘taboo’ and female homosexuality as non-existent. However, heterosexual characters in the show openly kiss regularly and discuss issues of sex and relationships relatively openly. The fact that the relationship of the two is presented so tamely suggests that the show is leaving out affectionate moments to avoid controversy.
Series four, episode three (set in 1960) deals directly with historical issues of homosexuality: specifically, the arrest and prosecution of a man who is caught committing an act of gross indecency, which, up until the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967, was a criminal offence. In the episode, the expectant father is given the choice of being medically ‘treated’ for his homosexual tendencies rather than given a prison sentence; leaving him, effectively, chemically castrated. The episode itself focusses strongly on the effects of the arrest and the abuse the expectant mother, and wife of the accused, suffers because of his charges. The topic of homosexuality is later pushed aside when, in reference to promoting tolerance towards homosexuality, Nurse Beatrix ‘Trixie’ Franklin (a woman of thoroughly ‘modern’ presentation) states to a disheartened Patsy: “I just don’t think it’s our battle to fight”. What the show fails to represent in this episode are the many discussions surrounding laws on homosexuality that were occurring from the mid-1950s onwards. These began with the Wolfenden report in 1957, which suggested that reforms should be made to the laws surrounding the criminality of homosexuality, and extended to lengthy discussions in Parliament up until thirteen years later, when the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality occurred.
Whilst the presentation of homosexuality has been lengthily praised by mainstream press and fans of the show, it appears that Call the Midwife is simply paying lip-service to what are much larger issues of the time. By including two homosexual characters, particularly as main reoccurring cast members, Call the Midwife is making homosexuality an issue of the show to be dealt with, presumably, in the same way that other presentations of ‘otherness’ are: through overcoming barriers, leading to an ultimate resolution of acceptance. Rather than tackling the issue of the historical erasure of homosexuality (particularly female homosexuality), Call the Midwife adds to this discourse of erasure by refusing to discuss a lesbian relationship openly on screen. The approach of presenting homosexuality historically as largely a private act is not false – the show’s larger agenda of lessening taboos through wholehearted acceptance apparently cannot stretch as far as announcing acceptance for a female homosexual couple – and now, since the actors portraying both Patsy and Delia have quit the show to pursue other roles, it is apparent that the producers of the show consider the topic to be ‘dealt with’ without ever including the acceptance that the show seems emphatically to promote.