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The Sunday Post: Having a Baby

Susannah Stevens

Shh! Don't wake the baby! 1964 BBC Education series Having a Baby was a comprehensive account of pregnancy, childbirth, and neo-natal care

Series six of Call the Midwife concludes this evening. The drama, based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth, portrays the lives of expectant working-class parents in the 1950s and 1960s - a time when pregnancy and childbirth were still seen as something of a “woman’s mystery”. But was the subject ever discussed on TV or the radio in those days?

“Hot water in good supply, and warm towels,” says Nurse Franklin as she ushers the husband of a labouring wife out of the room, in the second series of Call the Midwife. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, labour and childbirth were still seen as something of a woman’s secret – not a matter for men, or for public discourse. In Poplar, East London, where Call the Midwife is set, husbands wait outside the rooms where their wives give birth, or walk nervously up and down outside tenement blocks.

“Traditionally”, says historian Angela Davis, “childbirth was seen as a woman’s mystery. Maternity clothes were typically all designed to mask pregnancy, and keep it hidden. Husbands were often not allowed to be present during home births. Although such traditions were dying out by the 1960s, there were still some places where women and babies wouldn’t leave the house for six weeks after the birth, or would have to make their first trip to the church.” 

But society at the time was on the cusp of social and cultural change. By the early 1960s, the birth control pill had just been introduced for married women, and the sexual revolution was just around the corner. It was the dawn of a new era of conversation about pregnancy and childbirth. So what was happening in broadcasting to keep abreast of these social changes?

The first reference in Genome to “having a baby” is a listing for a 1943 radio programme about how women can regain their figures after pregnancy. The first use of the word “pregnancy” (when not used in relation to brood mares) is in the same context, on BBC TV in Your Wardrobe – which gave advice on “the care of skin and hair during pregnancy”.

A bemused 1964 doctor is introduced to the concept of 'fist bumps' by Britain's coolest baby.

It was not until 1949 that a series addressing the medical aspects of pregnancy targeted (unsurprisingly), a female audience on Woman’s Hour. In 1951, the item returned, billed as a series by “doctors and mothers”. Having a Baby in 1951 touched on – among other subjects - the mother’s health, relaxation techniques for labour, breast-feeding, and the administration of gas and air as pain relief. 

Attitudes towards childbirth began to shift by the late 1950s, says Davis: “Mothers’ groups began to be set up as a reaction, to try and break the ignorance surrounding childbirth,” she says. The Natural Childbirth Trust (later to become NCT) and an organisation called AIMS (Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services) were both part of this movement. 

In 1954, another offering aimed at women arrived on BBC TV in About the Home. The programme, labelled as “practical help for the housewife”, ran a series that looked at antenatal exercises, diet and maternity clothes.

Then in 1964, BBC One aired a ten-part factual series entitled Having a Baby, which covered an exhaustive array of issues surrounding ante- and neo-natal care. Subjects ranged from what to eat during pregnancy, to the three stages of labour, and early years childcare. It took a no-holds-barred approach to the science of pregnancy, and was introduced each week by a Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology from the University of London, alongside a team of other medical professionals (in those days practicing medics were all billed anonymously to avoid advertising).

The series ran in the middle of the day, indicating that – like its precursor in Woman’s Hour - it was likely to have been aimed mainly at a female audience, but it set out to educate and include men as well. The programme description states: “No father experiences the physical and emotional changes of the mother-to-be. Nor can a mother ever know how helpless and left-out a father-to-be can feel.” One episode specifically looked at the role of the man during labour, even going so far as to ask whether a father should be present at the birth of his baby. 

After World War Two, childbirth increasingly moved out of the home and became centralised in hospitals – a theme that is explored in the latest series of Call the Midwife

It is perhaps a sign of the times in which it was broadcast, that Having a Baby posed questions, such as whether “the practice of relaxation exercises in pregnancy help to give a mother an easier labour”, and whether “breast-feeding was nearly always better” with the caveat that the programme “[did] not seek controversy; rather it notes where controversy exists”.

The series also reflected an already changing environment in maternity healthcare, with birth increasingly happening in hospitals. Antenatal clinics, which had appeared in the 1930s and were well established by the time the NHS arrived, were also looked at. 

The aim of the BBC series was twofold: to examine modern maternity services, and the relationship between expectant mothers and healthcare professionals, and to understand the emotional responses in men and women to childbirth; to examine, simply, the “way that people feel”.

So what did the public make of it? When the series returned for a repeat run the following year, it was rescheduled to run at the later hour of 22:30, still on BBC One (it was also reduced to nine episodes from ten, losing the installment The Cost of Having a Baby). The programme had provoked “a lively postbag”, wrote Beryl Radley, in the Radio Times. “Expectant mothers wrote gratefully. Doctors, midwives, and health visitors asked for more. Fathers argued over whether or not they should be present at the birth. A few - strait-laced - disapproved… The one refrain, constant in nearly all the letters, was that the series should be in the evening when many more could see it.”

Having a Baby contained a wide range of practical advice, including tips on how to bathe your baby and what to have on hand in the house

For James Drife, Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics at Leeds University, who was a medical student during the 1960s, the changes that occurred during this decade had a huge effect on his profession. "The model at the time was very much 'doctor knows best'”, says Drife. “It was quite hierarchical. Even the midwives weren't necessarily recognised as practitioners in their own right - they did what the doctors said."

"There was a change in culture in the 1960s. Looking back it was really a tectonic change in terms of the relationship between the professionals and their patients.” Broadcasting and the media helped, says Drife. “Because the information was already out there, you were rarely telling someone something that they didn't already know about."

Looking back, it of course makes perfect sense that that there should have been such an appetite for knowledge and information at the very point that the UK was reaching the peak of the baby boom in 1964. Cultural and social attitudes were changing, and it was time for broadcasting to reflect that. And perhaps it’s the change and energy encapsulated in those times, which makes the drama of Call the Midwife so popular 50 years on.

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