Being away from home does strange things to my viewing habits. Here in Italy, in the lovely old town of Treviso, a short drive from Venice, TV seems more irrelevant than usual. The apartment we are renting for the fortnightis in a large house that was built in the 15th century, and has been unsentimentally renovated to include 21st century plumbing and fast internet. It has the usual suite of appliances: dishwasher, microwave – and a flat screen telly with numerous channels of utter unwatchableness.
When you’ve seen one Italian chat show you’ve seen them all; pretty much as it is at home. There were about a dozen Arabic language channels which were interesting for five minutes until the language barrier became insuperable; I could have almost managed if there had been Italian subtitles but there were none. (Italian is relatively easy to read but the ferocious speed of the conversations makes it almost impossible to process aurally unless you are really really fluent. Do English speakers speak as quickly?) It was then that I thought of SBS’s brave army of subtitlers helping us all understand each other. There were also quite a few rubbishy porny-type channels whose very titles were depressing, and that was about it. No kids’ channel, no music. I started to wonder if this was Berlusconi’s legacy to Italian popular culture and began to feel sorry for them until I remembered why we were here in Treviso.
It was a wedding that brought us here, a glorious and unmixedly felicitous blending of families in hospitality and gracious acceptance. Our son is now part of a large Italian family and our wonderful daughter-in-law is now part of ours. And before and after the wedding itself there was music, cheap and stylish clothes shopping,(Treviso is the home of Benetton…) strolling through the historic streets and the strange feeling of being surrounded by a history that stretches back, back into the mists of whatever we came from in Europe millennia ago.
And no-one needs to watch telly when they have the passegiata: the lovely evening saunter through the streets where one goes to see and be seen. People dress with care, even to go grocery shopping; no tracky dacks, not a single muffin top to be seen. An aperitivo in a little bar, a cheerily polite greeting, a gentle acceptance of squealing toddlers and footsore nonnas; all this graciousness makes you think of the real things of life, as real as the Angelus bells that ring through the town at noon and at five. So many churches, so old and so well patronised that you could think that all was well until you see that the priests are all old and grey-white.
So no, there hasn’t been any Italian telly watching to tell you about. But when we return (all too soon) there will be one program that I will catch up on. You may have been watching it, and if you haven’t then you can probably catch up on ABC’s excellent IView: Call the Midwife. BBC have at last scored a hit to rival Downton Abbey and the contrast couldn’t be greater. Instead of meticulously costumed early 20th century upper class soap, we have meticulously costumed mid 20th century drama based on fact. It reminds me of one of my old favourites, All Creatures Great and Small in that it concentrates on a set of discrete stories that change with each episode: each baby is born into different circumstances, each mother and each midwife must face dangers and deal with problems that could be lethal.
The life of the poor in the East End of London is still not an easy one, but the privations and squalor of the early 1950s are presented to us starkly, However, it’s never portrayed in a way that demeans the people in it. The series is based on the book of the same name, written by the late Jennifer Worth. Her memoir chronicles the often heroic work of the Anglican nuns of Nonnatus House. The order was founded in the 19th century but not permitted to take vows until the 1920s. In the 1950s they employed and trained lay midwives who would set out on bicycles to their charges, delivering babies in often-direly deprived circumstances.
The labour scenes are realistic: the actors have obviously experienced or witnessed actual births. And each delivery in the drama is an emotional experience that can bring one to tears (if one is even a little inclined that way: I am something of a weeper when the occasion warrants, although I have to tell you that I am nothing in the lachrymal stakes when it comes to my sister Geraldine, who is a gold-medal blue ribbon sniffler at sad or happy movies, tv programs and even baby/puppy clips on Youtube).
Call the Midwife makes me want to go and read the book, makes me remember the births of my children, and fills me with awe and respect for all the helpers of women in their extremity of need. It’s worth the time that you take to watch it because it fulfils the most important function of good tv, indeed of all good art, in that it causes you to reflect on life with a sense of wonder and turns you outward to look afresh at the world that it has brought to your notice.