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Katherine Byrne

Call the Midwife is one of the BBC’s most popular and most long-running series. It sets out to construct the NHS as part of British heritage, reminding the modern viewer of the importance of free healthcare at a time when it has been under attack by austerity politics. In doing so, however, it has courted controversy, inviting debates about the politics of fertility through contraception and abortion plots which have received mixed reviews from feminists and conservatives alike. In addition, as this chapter will discuss, with its emphasis on the ‘heroic’ natural birth and the courageous ‘labour’ of women, it reflects the position of the midwifery profession in regard to their championing of vaginal delivery (Takeshita, 2017). Birth has long been a much-contested area (Mander and Murphy-Lawless, 2013) and the Royal College of Midwives in Britain has been at the centre of controversy in the last few years concerning the relationship between their anti-intervention position and birth complications and mortality. The show does appear to have done much to redeem a profession that has historically been vilified or side-lined, partly because it is female-dominated, and it reminds the audience of the value and importance of its contribution to society. The problem remains, however, that it is largely unwilling to challenge midwifery’s continuing assertion that natural is best, even if that means long-term physical or emotional implications for mothers who do not manage to – or even wish to – achieve a ‘heroic’ birth.

in Diagnosing history
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Medicine in television period drama

This collection examines the representation of medicine and medical practices in period drama on television. It explores the fascination that the genre has with the history of illness and the medical profession, which is apparent in the huge number of shows which have medicine as either their narrative focus or as important subplots. Chapter topics are interdisciplinary in nature and range from the professionalisation of medicine in Poldark to the representation of mental illness in Peaky Blinders. This volume reflects on the ways popular culture has constructed and considered the frailty of the human body, the progress – or otherwise – of science, the intersection of medicine, race, class, and gender, and the provision of public healthcare. These dramas do not only reveal much about how we view our corporeal past, however. All these issues are still pertinent today, and frequently they also function as a commentary on, and often a critique of, the issues surrounding medicine in the present day – in particular debates around public health provision, the politics of reproduction, genetic testing and research, and global pandemics.

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Byrne Katherine, Taddeo Julie Anne, and Leggott James

This Introduction provides an overview of the collection of chapters, situates the book within the existing scholarship on medical television, and argues for the relevance of period TV in presenting the history of medicine as well as engaging with contemporary fears and debates about disease, the body, scientific research, professionalisation and the power of ‘the expert’, and more. A brief description of each chapter and the dramas under analysis (Outlander, Poldark, The Knick, Mercy Street, La Peste, A Place to Call Home, Penny Dreadful, Peaky Blinders, etc.) is provided.

in Diagnosing history