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Safely delivered

22 January 2016

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CALL the Midwife, which returned for a new series last weekend (BBC1, Sunday), won a huge and appreciative audience for its authentic portrayal of the work of midwives attached to an Anglican order of nuns in the East End of London in the 1950s. Much of its authenticity came from the bestselling memoirs of Jennifer Worth, who had worked with the Sisters as a young midwife. Some viewers may have shared my anxiety that, the more distant the series became from its original source, the less sensitively it would be able to portray their work.

On Sunday’s evidence, there was nothing to fear. The central story was of a baby born without normal limbs (thalidomide is not yet identified as the cause), and of the reaction of the parents, siblings, and midwives. In the end, love triumphed over fear, which may sound like a religious cliché. I doubt if that was how most of the audience would have judged it.

Faced with the questions about why such things happen, and how an ordinary family could cope with them, we were left with the final comment of the Mother Superior: “Love fills the space required.”

The story was set at Easter 1961, and ended with excited references to the first manned space flight by the Russian Yuri Gagarin. Stargazing Live (BBC 2, Tuesday to Friday) has traditionally provided great opportunities for Professor Brian Cox and the comedian Dara Ó Briain to make astronomy palatable to the wider TV audience.

This year, however, it coincided with the first ever space walk by a British astronaut, Major Tim Peake, who, by the start of this week’s programmes, had circled the earth 32 times in the International Space Station before his historic venture outside it. The “walk”, with an American colleague, constituted the Friday programme. Their exterior maintenance task was completed satisfactorily, but the exercise was terminated early because of a water leak in the American’s helmet.

We had followed Major Peake’s preparations through the week, and been introduced to some of the amazing complications of life in a weightless environment. The presence of a distinguished comedian as a co-presenter was justified for me by his earthy, if relevant, questions about the lavatory arrangements on board.

We were treated on the first three evenings to all manner of other astronomical diversions. These included a group in Stockton-on-Tees who had identified a new pulsar; star-gazers in Chipping Norton frustrated by thick cloud; and another comedian, John Bishop, being subjected to 2G of centrifugal force.

There were also, of course, the horror stories: horrors from which all this massively expensive research may one day deliver us. There are asteroids that might hit the earth at any time, but there are plans to deflect them. Some of this research will enable us to predict natural changes in the sun’s radiation, which have caused trouble and disaster on earth in the past.

Our sun, we were relieved to hear, is only “middle-aged”, but one day it will turn into a white dwarf and cease to anchor our tiny planet. Forewarned is forearmed, even if it won’t happen for another five billion years. As Ó Briain said: “Don’t have nightmares.”

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