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PBS had a natal attraction to Brit TV hit ‘Call the Midwife’

JessicRaine 'Call Midwife' PBS. This image may only be used for publicity purposes connectiwith broadcast programme as licensed by BBC

Jessica Raine in "Call the Midwife" on PBS. This image may only be used for publicity purposes in connection with the broadcast of the programme as licensed by BBC Worldwide Ltd & must carry the shown copyright legend. It may not be used for any commercial purpose without a licence from the rights holder. © Neal Street Productions 2011

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Updated: November 1, 2012 6:24AM

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Great British drama from “Upstairs Downstairs” to “Downton Abbey” has played on PBS under the “Masterpiece” banner, but this weekend’s new “Call the Midwife” airs on its own.

PBS President Paula Kerger noted that “Brideshead Revisited” aired on public TV stations in 1982, but not as a “Masterpiece” production.

“[‘Masterpiece’ executive producer)] Rebecca Eaton called our attention to [‘Call the Midwife’],” Kerger said. “She didn’t think that it was quite right for ‘Masterpiece.’ ... We’ve been looking at really trying to create experiences for our viewers where we’re aligning programs; we were certainly open to looking for good and compelling drama series. And we were aware of the success of ‘Call the Midwife’ in the U.K., and while looking at the series we thought this would really be great for an American audience. We thought it would actually be a good companion to ‘Masterpiece.’ ”

And indeed it is. Set in 1950s London, the series (7 p.m. Sunday on WTTW-Channel 11) is based on the memoirs of real-life midwife Jennifer Worth and follows Jenny Lee, played by Jessica Raine (except in narration, when Vanessa Redgrave gives voice to a more mature Jenny).

Jenny arrives in London’s East End and meets her new co-workers, including the slightly daft Sister Monica Joan (Judy Parfitt) and the in-command Sister Julienne (Jenny Agutter). It’s 1957 and Jenny, 22, moves into Nonnatus House, which is her home base for work as a midwife.

Several other younger midwives also live there, including glamorous Trixie (Helen George), quiet Cynthia (Bryony Hannah) and the ever-awkward Chummy (Miranda Hart), who arrives in episode two.

Tall, gangly and eager to please, Chummy is an endearing scene stealer who brings lighter moments to “Call the Midwife.” Her inability to ride a bike — how all the midwives get around to their appointments — leads her to collide with a possible love interest.

Jenny is initially shocked by the situations and conditions she encounters, including a woman who is in her 25th pregnancy; a pregnant woman with a venereal disease and another woman who has a home delivery.

Written by Heidi Thomas (“Cranford,” the new “Upstairs Downstairs”), “Call the Midwife” became an instant hit when it debuted in England in January, breaking records to become BBC1’s most-watched drama-series premiere since the current British ratings system began in 2001, according to British publications. In England, the “Midwife” premiere even beat “Sherlock,” which airs on PBS’ “Masterpiece.”

Scripps Howard News Service

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