Miranda Hart might not be well known in America, but that is about to change, thanks to her role in PBS’ period drama Call the Midwife, which airs Sundays at 8 p.m. (Check your local listings for details.) In fact, her disarming performance turns clumsy midwife Camilla Fortescue-Cholmondeley-Browne (or Chummy for short) into this season’s breakout character.
Based on the memoirs of the late Jennifer Worth, Call the Midwife centers on a group of young midwives and the nuns of nursing convent Nonnatus House in post-war London. The series scored an impressive audience of nearly 10 million viewers when it aired earlier this year in the United Kingdom, coming in second behind the third season of Downton Abbey as the highest rated drama of the year. A Christmas Special will air in December on BBC One, and a second season has been commissioned for 2013.
The 39-year-old Hart, best known for writing and starring in BBC comedy Miranda (itself based on Hart’s BBC Radio 2 show Miranda Hart’s Joke Shop), popped up in bit parts in such well-known comedies as Absolutely Fabulous and The Vicar of Dibley before getting her big break as the female lead in the 2006 sci-fi comedy Hyperdrive, opposite Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost.
In her eponymous comedy, which is currently filming a third season, the six-foot, one-inch Hart plays a posh singleton who spends her sizable inheritance on opening a joke shop; her eternal quest for love—egged on by her ridiculously insensitive mother (Patricia Hodge)—is fraught with tragedy. Miranda is, in many ways, a throwback to a comedy style long since fallen out of favor, recalling the British comedies of the 70s and early 80s. But there’s a sense of the show being so utterly unhip that it is actually quite cool.
"It now feels like people are allowed to openly like an uncool show,” Hart told the Guardian in 2010. “I just thought, that’s the kind of comedy I love, so why not embrace the genre wholly and go, guys, this is what I’m doing, and you really will have to like it or lump it.”
It’s an attitude that permeates everything that Hart does. The second episode of Call the Midwife, which aired in the U.S. on Sunday evening, introduced Hart’s Chummy Browne, an inexperienced but impassioned midwife who, over the course of the next four episodes, becomes the series’ de facto romantic lead. That is, when she’s not wobbling dangerously on her bicycle on the streets of 50’s East London and delivering babies into the world.
Part of the character’s appeal is that Hart doesn’t look like your prototypical romantic lead, certainly not one on American television, where female love interests tend to be pert and blonde or look like they stepped out of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Which makes the engaging and kindhearted Chummy all the more remarkable and original. Played with gentle ease and a lack of snobbishness by Hart, the well-off and awkward Chummy emerges as the character the audience is rooting for above all others, effortlessly stealing the show out from under her co-stars as she engages in a chaste flirtation with police constable Peter Noakes (Ben Caplan), with whom Chummy and two other midwives have collided in spectacular fashion.
It’s a meet-cute that allows Hart to play up her love of slapstick, but Chummy’s efforts to ride a bicycle provide the first season of Call the Midwife with some of its most touching and ultimately triumphant moments. While Hart’s handling of the physical comedy is expected (she’s only too willing to fall off a bicycle repeatedly), Chummy’s victory on two wheels goes well beyond that of the comic. Subject to the taunts of local children for her inability to ride a bike, Chummy overcomes her height, her weight, and her fear to save the day. It’s a small moment that underpins the character’s heavy burden, revealing that her, well, chumminess conceals some very real self-doubt.
Yet Chummy’s slow-simmering romance with PC Noakes becomes one of the series’ finer points, which remains infused with subtlety and humor throughout. Hart’s presence injects a precise note of lightheartedness in a series that deals with the joys and dangers of childbirth in 1957. The deliveries depicted within Call the Midwife are bloody, breathtaking, and at times elegiac.
The archaic tools of the trade that the show’s midwives use—a glass enema tube, a wooden listening device—demonstrate just how far health care has come. But the quality of the care and solicitousness of the practitioners is a stark reminder of the equality of care under the NHS, and arrives at a time of great debate over our own modern American health care system and women’s reproductive rights.
Chummy shouldn’t fit into this world, and yet she does, against the wishes of her priggish mother, Lady Browne (Cheryl Campbell), whom she refers to as “Mater.” If her usage of Latin hasn’t been enough of a clue that she comes from well-heeled stock, the mementos that clutter Chummy’s room speak of a life of privilege, one left behind in pursuit of her vocation. That Chummy would choose a life among nuns and childbirth speaks volumes about the frustrating limitations of the life she left behind. But Chummy isn’t painted as a tragic figure: Hart balances the role with the right mix of ungainliness, elegance, and compassion.
Worth, on whose memoirs the show is based, wanted Hart to play Chummy from the start, and even wrote to the comedian. “She sent me the book, and said if it gets made into a telly show, I’d love you to be Chummy because you remind me of her,” Hart told the Telegraph earlier this year. “She’d penciled in the index the page numbers where Chummy appears, so I went straight there and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, I’ve got to play her.’”
Sadly, Worth didn’t live to see Call the Midwife reach the screen, passing away last year, but one imagines that she would have been only too pleased to see Chummy materialize with the fanfare that she has.
Meanwhile, Hart—whose autobiography, entitled Is It Just Me?, has just been released in the U.K.—believes that her lack of traditional good looks has ultimately lead to her professional success.
“If you look like a sack of offal that’s been drop-kicked down a lift-shaft into a pond, you’re going to spend many of your formative years alone,” she wrote. “This may seem miserable—but you’ll have space, space you can constructively use to discover and hone your skills, learn a language, develop an interest in cosmology, practice the oboe, do whatever you fancy, really, so long as it doesn’t involve being looked at or snogging anyone.”