Beyond 'Downton': BBC Shows You May Have Missed

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There was so much great stuff in arts and entertainment this year that we just couldn't report on all of it as it was happening. So we're playing a little catch-up on the ones that got by us.

In 2012, the BBC delivered some thrilling new TV dramas to its two primary outlets in the U.S.: PBS, which has been programming its shows for decades, and the cable channel BBC America.

First BBC America: One of its best shows is The Hour, a slick production set in the 1950s; think Mad Men meets Broadcast News. The series centers on the journalists, and the egos, that put together a daily TV news show. With ticking deadlines, booze, sex and crime, The Hour moves at a pace that is never dull.

Perry Simon, BBC America's general manager, says The Hour functions on many different levels. "As a personal drama, a historical drama in terms of the BBC news of that era, and then as an edge-of-your-seat drama," he says.

Another series Simon is very proud of is not an import, but rather an original series co-produced by BBC America: Copper, a gritty crime drama packed with history.

Set in New York City during what Simon calls "the last gasps of the Civil War," Copper revolves around Detective Kevin Corcoran, an intense, rugged Irish immigrant who travels the seedy Five Points neighborhood but also the wealthy Upper East Side and the northern, largely African-American part of the city. Simon says Copper gave BBC America its highest-rated drama ever.

As for PBS, it had a hit with a series that is divinely unconventional. Call the Midwife is based on the memoirs of Jennifer Worth. When she was 22, she left her middle-class life and became a midwife with the nuns at a convent in a poor part of London in the 1950s.

In the U.K., the TV series was a sensation, every bit as popular as that other period phenomenon, Downton Abbey. Call the Midwife Executive Producer Pippa Harris says when she first read Worth's books, she knew it was a TV series in the making.

"The episodic nature of her storytelling and the big ensemble cast, but also the mixture of humor and pathos ... within the storylines that she tells, all of which made me think it would be brilliant television," says Harris.

The midwives are quite a sight as they ride bikes through the cobbled streets of London's East End, the nuns in full habit and the lay nurses in skirts.

The characters are irresistible. There's Sister Evangelina, a no-nonsense nurse with little patience for the middle-class midwives who gasp at the poor living conditions.

"Sister Evangelina, who is played by Pam Ferris, is probably the most working-class of our characters," says Harris. "So she feels that she very much understands the community around her and finds, at times, that the others are all a little bit on a higher plane and being ridiculous about things. So she's very good about slapping the other characters down."

There's the posh but clumsy midwife-in-training, Camilla Fortescue Cholomondley-Browne — "Chummy" for short. She is played to perfection by English comedian Miranda Hart.

Call the Midwife is really about the community created among the nuns, the lay nurses and the people living under dreary circumstances. The midwives take care of everyone from elderly prostitutes to teenage mothers.

In 2008, Worth talked to the BBC about her experiences as a midwife. She said that even though she and the other nurses were working in rough neighborhoods, sometimes by themselves late at night, they never felt they were in danger.

"There was a Cockney saying: 'A nurse is safe amongst us.' And we knew we were absolutely safe. That was because of the tradition the nuns had built up. They'd been there since 1870s. They had built up respect, almost reverence. And the men knew that their women relied upon us and they wouldn't have touched us. If they had, they'd have been beaten up by the other men," she said.

Worth consulted on the BBC TV series. But during pre-production, she was diagnosed with cancer, and she died six weeks later.

"She actually died before we started filming and never got to see anything on film, which was awful actually," says Harris.

In the series, Vanessa Redgrave is the voice of the main character, Jenny Lee, looking back on her career. The character is inspired by Worth, and Call the Midwife captures the essence of her memoirs.

"Midwifery is the very stuff of life," says Jenny Lee in the TV series. "Every child is conceived in love or lust and born in pain followed by joy or by tragedy and anguish. Every birth is attended by a midwife. She is in the thick of it. She sees it all."

PBS will be running a Call the Midwife holiday special on Dec. 30. A new season begins at the end of March 2013.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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