The nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House are off on a magical Christmas adventure to the Outer Hebrides. But when they encounter stubborn locals, a gaggle of wayward sheep and a dire shortage of medical provisions, the team look set for a Christmas they’ll definitely remember.
Call the Midwife is one show that consistently manages to sprinkle our lives with love, occasionally break our hearts, and restore our faith in the goodness of humanity. And as we wait for series nine of the popular period drama to return to our screens, the space in our TV schedules has been temporarily filled by the arrival of a Christmas special.
This time around, Mother Mildred feels a calling to take the team of Nonnatus House on an expedition to the Outer Hebrides, where remote Scottish islanders are struggling for medical assistance. Despite the idyllic landscape, the team face a harsh welcome, both from the weather and the local community, and have to dig deep to provide much-needed care before they head home for Christmas.
Here, Stylist contributor Christobel Hastings unravels everything that happens to our favourite cast of characters in the festive episode. Be warned: this recap contains spoilers…
Mother Mildred hatches a grand plan
It’s the Christmas season in Poplar, and the festivities are in full flow. Sister Hilda, Sister Monica Joan and Sister Frances are dutifully helping sew reindeer antlers, handyman Fred Buckle has donned a Father Christmas suit to give presents to local children, and even Mother Mildred has wangled two pounds of free oranges from a market trader under the pretence of giving succour to infants.
Back at Nonnatus House, and a snuffly cast of nuns and midwives are now tucking into their citrus fruit, wondering what’s come over Mother Mildred. Before anyone has time to rest on their laurels though, Mother Mildred proposes an “advanced excursion” for her ailing nuns. An opportunity to convalesce, she explains, with the express purpose of providing “a change of scene, good food, fresh air”. Hmm.
In the private company of Sister Julienne, however, Mother Mildred reveals her real intention: to venture to a remote Scottish island in the Outer Hebrides, where the residents are in dire need of medical assistance and midwives. “I believe God is calling me to open another branch house,” she declares with a misty look in her eye, “where good nursing and skilled midwives are desperately needed. Where there is often no doctor for many miles, where climate is our enemy, and water and electricity both fickle friends at best.”
“Are you thinking of expanding our operations in Africa?,” Sister Julienne asks, looking bewildered. “No. We’re going to the Outer Hebrides,” Mother Mildred replies happily.
Needless to say, her team is less than amused at the prospect of upping to a cold, bleak island for the festive season. The Turners’ are worried about leaving their children behind, and Violet Buckle is no less than fuming at the idea of Fred going off to the “back of beyond”. Meanwhile, elderly and eccentric Sister Monica Jean is forbidden from joining the company.
The Outer Hebrides puts the team out of their comfort zone
After a seemingly never-ending train journey and ferry ride, the team arrive in the Outer Hebrides, a magnificent but uncompromising landscape, where windswept moors stretch as far as the eye can see, and flocks of wayward sheep ramble over winding roads. But the pilgrimage, as Mother Mildred calls it, isn’t over yet, so the team pile into a Bedford minibus and set off for St Faelan’s Youth Hostel. Their accommodation for their 10-day stint in Scotland turns out to be a dark, draughty old church with dust covers on the furniture and an “animal odour underfoot.”
Needless to say, the midwives aren’t amused. Their place of rest is less five-star accomodation, Nurse Trixie bemoans, but more “700 years of mist, dust and misery seeping out of these walls”. Nurses Trixie, Valerie and Lucille bundle up in hats and scarves and prepare to spend their inaugural night getting cosy underneath their coats.
The following morning, the nurses head off to the nearby town hall, where they are met by a formidable, conservative Scotswoman called Morag Noray, who takes no pleasure in their arrival and swiftly informs them that the only medical objects to hand are practice records from the old surgery. Everything else, she explains, is tucked away in the storeroom and will have to be hunted down. Oh, and the electricity is on the blink. At least the nurses weren’t expecting an easy ride.
Norag’s frosty reception isn’t enough to dampen spirits though, and the team soon set about exploring the storeroom, kitting themselves out with bicycles, dusting off medical screens, and printing leaflets by hand advertising a ‘Daily Clinic at the Harrabost Village Hall’. Their hard work pays off, and when the clinic opens for the first time, they are inundated with locals. The nurses are tested when a woman arrives who has just given birth in a Land Rover, with her baby still attached by its umbilical cord. Though the midwives have trouble delivering all the placenta, they manage to complete it eventually.
Back home after their first day, the team are exhausted. “This is a completely dreadful way to convalesce, we’re all dressed up as if we’ve burgled a jumble sale,” says Nurse Trixie as Nurses Valerie and Lucille sit in their coats and scarves. The women discuss a member of the public who was suspicious of Leonie because of her skin colour. “All islands have a boundary, and you live your life within it, and you love it, or you break out and make a life elsewhere,” Lucille remarks wisely. “And on every island in the world, no matter how magnificent, there are those who cannot leave and those who cannot stay. I was one of those who could not stay.”
Acts of rebellion are all around
It’s not all acts of civil obedience for the good people of the Scotland, though. In the midst of the wild, rugged terrain, we see a red-headed girl, Effie, staging a very Hebridean teenage rebellion. In other words, storming out of singing practice and lighting up a cigarette instead. Later on, she’s scolded by a pregnant motherly relative, who warns that if she plays up again, the minister could be paying a visit to the house! “The psalms make my head ache,” Effie offers by way of an explanation for her behaviour, which seems like a sound defence to us.
Meanwhile, back home in Poplar, Sister Monica Joan is hatching a plan of her own. With a picture of harmless naivety playing upon her face, she goes to visit Sister Hilda and asks her if she thinks her “mental faculties are diminished” because of her age. Understandably, Sister Hilda cannot hurt Sister Monica Joan’s feelings, because that would a) confirm that she was left out from the grand excursion because of her frailty and frequent state of confusion and b) be tantamount to kicking a puppy. She reassures her, saying that she thinks she is of completely sound mind.
Now that she’s extracted that declaration from Sister Hilda, Sister Monica Joan guilt trips her one step further, explaining that senior Sisters’ used to be allowed to draw from the petty cash for assistance, although Mother Mildred has since forbidden it. Mother Mildred isn’t around though to put her foot down, and with a look of hurt still on Sister Monica Joan’s face, Sister Hilda emphatically tells her that she too is permitted to draw some funds from the petty cash for her personal use.
With a glint in her eye, Sister Monica Joan sneaks out of Nonnatus House with her suitcase, leaving a letter behind on the doormat for the nuns to find. Needless to say, Sister Hilda is pretty angry when she discovers Sister Monica Joan has tricked her, and announces her intention to call the police to track her down. Sister Monica Joan doesn’t care though - she’s off in pursuit of finding a hallowed white stag in the Hebrides!
The midwives face their biggest challenge yet
Back in the Outer Hebrides, the clinic is thriving with patients, and everything is going smoothly save for a minor incident where Fred invokes the wrath of Morag Noray for putting up a Christmas tree in the town hall. Dejectedly, he takes the “pagan monstrosity” outside to the dustbins. You can’t win them all, Fred.
Mother Mildred is also feeling less than amused when Sister Monica Joan arrives in the Hebrides, and rocks up to the hostel to a standing ovation from the nuns and midwives alike. Still, there’s no time to be mad at a wayward nun, as the party receive an urgent phone call from the lighthouse manager, Angus, whose wife has gone into labour and is stranded without any help on an island. Cue Nurse Val, Nurse Lucille, Dr Turner and Fred embarking on an intrepid rescue mission to administer urgent medical assistance - once they’ve begged the staunchly traditional coastguard to lend them the boat to row themselves across to the red-and-white striped lighthouse, of course.
The midwives soon reach the coastguard’s wife Janet and help safely deliver a baby boy. But before the team can breathe a sigh of relief, she falls ill again with acute appendicitis. There’s worse news yet: a fierce storm is raging overhead, and when Dr Turner telephones the mainland to try and arrange a medical evacuation, they are told to stay put until the storm passes. With their backs up against the wall, there’s nothing left for the team to do but remove the troubling appendix themselves; so Val scrubs down the kitchen table, Lucille prepares the anaesthetic, and Dr Turner successfully completes Janet’s operation. Where’s Fred in all of the commotion? He’s keeping busy bouncing the newborn baby.
Back at base, Nurse Phyllis and Nurse Trixie depart to the McCloud’s house to change the dressings on Effie’s cousin’s legs, who was burnt when she danced too close to the kitchen fire. When they arrive, Effie, who is supposed to be tending to her cousin, is nowhere to be seen - she’s headed to the coast, where she’s got a bottle of whisky tucked away in a dry stone wall. As the waves rage, and snow starts to fall, she grows more intoxicated, eventually falling unconscious on the roadside. Luckily, as Nurse Phyllis and Nurse Trixie head back home, they find her and take her back to back to the hostel, where Trixie tucks her up in her pyjamas to sleep off her drunkenness.
The following day, Effie, stone cold sober and immensely sorrowful, takes Nurse Phyllis to her secret alcohol stash, where they dispose of the whisky. Effie tells Nurse Phyllis that she was born a “bastard” and that she longs to escape the small-mindedness of the town. Her candour warms Nurse Phyllis, who shares her own stories of growing up with a single mother, and the pair bond. “One day I suddenly realised how proud I am of my mother,” Nurse Phyllis recalls. “Keeping me took courage, and I decided I’d make her proud of me.”
Just as things begin to look up, Mother Mildred receives a letter from the local council saying the lease on St Faelan’s Youth Hostel will not be given to the midwives long-term, as they wish the space to be used for a secular purpose, or not at all. Mother Mildred fears the “denominational divide between us and the Presbyterians is too great,” and that she might have wrongly invaded the privacy of the community with her mission. Sister Monica Jean, however, reassures her that the full purpose of their mission is yet to be revealed.
Reggie proves Christmas is all about coming together
So what’s Reggie been up to while all of the drama has been going down in the Outer Hebrides? Mainly pining for Fred to come home and help him make paper chains, which we can all agree is a woefully underrated festive pursuit. At least Miss Higgins is on hand to help Reggie make his beloved decorations though, and after seeing him in low spirits at a community event in the town hall, resolves to give him a Christmas to remember.
In the Outer Hebrides, the nuns and midwives of Nonnatus House are coming to the end of their stay, just as the locals are beginning to warm to their presence. Sister Julienne receives an unexpected invitation from the same frosty coastguard who, just a few days earlier, had refused to help the midwives reach the family of the lighthouse. He informs them that the company of the whole party has been requested at the local town hall. Meanwhile, Sister Monica Joan feels a calling to head out, and pays a visit to the Callanish Stones where she sees her long-awaited, and utterly majestic, white stag. A good omen of things to come.
As Christmas draws closer, the communities in both Poplar and the Hebrides are bustling with festive activities. The local Scottish women are singing traditional songs and have swapped making fabric for paper chains. At the town hall, the nuns and midwives arrive to a rapturous welcome from the local community, who have thrown a farewell party, complete with food, drink and paper chains strung from the ceiling. Even Morag Noray has thawed considerably, wishing the team goodwill as Nurses Val, Lucille, Trixie and Shelagh sing a round of carols for the crowd.
As the nuns and midwives depart for the long journey back to Poplar, Miss Higgins’ plan is revealed: she hopes for the local community to get together and make a paper chain long enough to secure Reggie a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
So the citizens of Poplar turn out to support Reggie and his paper chain mission, and just in the nick of time, Mother Mildred and co arrive home in black taxis, where they produce paper chains of their own to add into the mix. Reggie is reunited with Fred, the medics and midwives of Nonnatus House are back together, and the community is reminded once again that it is “the links in the chain of love that bind us all”.
The Call the Midwife Christmas special airs tonight on BBC One at 7.00pm. Read more about Call the Midwife here.
Images: BBC One