Episode 6 marches in the week of May Day (May 1), when union members and labor advocates around the world stage parades and protest for better working conditions and benefits. In the episode’s introduction, Call the Midwife points out that in 1964, every East End family had a connection to the wharves. The pay at the docks was considered good, but the hazards of the labor could cost workers their health. We see Brittall family men face deadly diseases they contracted while at work.
Closed Captions, Anyone?
Watching Call the Midwife does not lead to hearing loss, but the closed captions come in handy alongside actors’ renditions of the East End Cockney accent. If you had trouble understanding dialogue or the meaning of slang phrases, here’s a recap of all the lines we stumbled through, and the plots they relate to.
“The hospital let me dad come home last night.”
While nurse Trixie Franklin is bicycling past the docks, a worker stops her to share some news. Between his accent and having no context about the character Barney Brittall, we really had no idea what he said, and had to replay the scene several times! He announces it as good news, but his dad, Joe Brittall, has actually returned home to die. At least he’ll be among his family of three generations.
Joe Brittall is dying from pneumoconiosis, the medical term coined in 1866 from the Greek pneuma (air, wind) and konis (dust). It’s commonly known as occupational lung disease, which is caused by breathing in dust, silica or asbestos particles at the workplace. The particles cause scarring in the lung tissue, which makes breathing difficult. There is no cure.
Trixie says the disease is common among Poplar’s retired dock workers, like Mr. Brittall. Elsewhere, miners can suffer from black lung disease, caused by coal dust. Brown lung comes from the dust of cotton or other fibers.
“Just don’t let her take the mickey.”
“Take the mickey” is slang for making fun of someone, or teasing them, but in this case we think it means to take advantage, or make a fool of someone. Violet Buckle wants to protect her husband Fred from the intrusive Mother Mildred, who is commandeering his time and use of his van in her effort to get to know the Poplar community that Nonnatus House serves.
“She doesn’t know if he told a porky.”
A “porky” means a lie, and comes from the Cockney tradition of creating slang out of rhymes (porky pie rhymes with lie). Val Dyer says this of Lucille’s suitor, Cyril. Churchgoer Lucille had heard that her new love interest was a pastor, and he isn’t. But he didn’t lie about that – it was Sister Monica who did! She defends her portrayal of him as a pastor with a gem of dialogue: “To operate solely on the plane of the literal would be tedious and would blind one to a greater truth.” We’re glad Cyril does not get eliminated in this episode of the bachelorette Midwife!
“I ain’t flashing my pins for no one!”
Pins is Cockney slang for legs, and is usually meant to compliment a woman’s legs, in particular. This wisecrack comes from nurse Val’s grandmother, who is basically saying she doesn’t want any strange doctor looking at her body. Val is visiting her to tend to some sores on the back of her grandmother’s “pins.” Gran lets Val know she should come around for visits more often, not just because Gran still insists on giving her ice cream money.
“I come as Boadicea, girded for battle.”
Mother Mildred shows up at Fred’s doorstop with this proud greeting. She may be distinctive in her habit and robes, but she’s no Boadicea! Boadicea (or Bodica) is a familiar name to ancient history buffs in the UK. She was the queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe in Eastern England who led a revolt against the Roman Empire in AD 60 or 61. Her troops killed tens of thousands of Romans and Britains, but did not defeat them. She died by either suicide (poison) or died of illness.
As Joe Brittall is dying from years of inhaling dust and other particles as he loaded and unloaded goods at the East End wharves, his son Barney is hospitalized with a potentially deadly disease called Anthrax. Anthrax is a bacteria found in the soil that can infect livestock and animals. It is not contagious, but people can contract it by breathing in spores, as Barney Brittall seems to have done via infected bonemeal from Lebanon.
Barney Brittall will recover from the Anthrax. Barney’s 21-year-old son has seen enough and decides to run for a position with the union so he can advocate for protective clothing and better knowledge about the potentially dangerous goods the dock workers handle.
Call the Midwife‘s particular line of labor comes into the episode with seventeen-year-old Elaine Pilkington. The teen mother gives birth to her second child at the maternity home. She has yearned for a child to replace the infant that was taken away from her without her consent at age 15. When her parents learn their unwed daughter wants to keep this child, they refuse to let Elaine or the baby live them.
Lucille connects Elaine to the National Council for the Unmarried Mother, a charity which helps find Elaine a “sympathetic landlady.” Elaine will be able to get National Assistance until her child is five. We hope her typing skills will support her beyond that.
In 1970, the charity changed its name to the National Council for One Parent Families. It merged with Gingerbread in 2007. That charity assists single parents in England and Wales and its president today is Harry Potter author JK Rowling.
Shelagh and Dr. Turner are preparing for the moment when May, the four-year-old orphan from Hong Kong that they’ve been fostering, moves on to her intended adoptive family. They hearts hurt at the thought of seeing her go, and they also want to know how to prepare her for the transition. Unlike the social worker assigned to them, the couple think there must be ways to make the upcoming separation easier on May. We see Shelagh start to make a scrapbook of photos and mementos that May can take with her.
Mother Mildred likes hearing the sound of her own voice and her sophisticated turns of phrase. Too bad she couldn’t have become a priest who could preach sermons from the pulpit. Unfortunately, her silver tongue lacks the tact of the midwives. She deeply offends Mrs. Britall by comparing the living conditions in Poplar to that of the slums in Kowloon. (Learn about its impoverished area called the Walled City, which was razed in the early 1990s; Kowloon is part of Hong Kong, which first became part of the British Empire in the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, after the First Opium War.)
She clashes with Trixie, insults Mrs. Brittall and takes advantage of Fred. But Mother Mildred ends the episode showing her heart is in the right place. She apologizes (if still rather aggressively) to Mrs. Brittall. After Violet lays down some rules of engagement with Fred, Mother Mildred admits “I came here to learn and I’m learning every day.” And, she goes out of her way to show her moral support for the dock workers, who she agrees should have better health protections. She may have unfinished business with Trixie.
For more background on the year the midwives and sisters are living through, see our 1964 highlights of songs, films, advances in medicine and science and more. Watch the next Call the Midwife episodes on Sundays at 8pm. Episodes will stream for two weeks after broadcast. You can read the blogs of real-life midwives on the Official PBS Call the Midwife site.