Saturday, 27 August 2016
Hattie Carries On ... As Matron!
Having covered every one of Joan Sims' 24 Carry On roles it now only seems fair that I turn the spotlight onto another great and loyal member of the team. Sticking with the wonderful women, I've decided to focus on all 14 of Hattie Jacques' Carry On appearances. Hattie's contribution to Carry On comedy was immense. Although appearing in far fewer films that Joan, Hattie created some iconic roles, none more so that the infamous Matron, a character which came to dominate her later career.
However there was far more to Jacques than that. She played Matron in all four of the medical films but there were ten other roles to enjoy too, from a budgie obsessed housewife to an angry, aggressive Spanish cook! So sit back and enjoy a run of blogs which looks at Hattie's Carry On contribution from the very first film in 1958 right through to her last supporting role in Carry On Dick 16 years later. So let's continue our journey today with a look back at Hattie's career-defining role as Matron in the second Carry On film, Carry On Nurse.
After the surprise success of Carry On Sergeant earlier in 1958, Peter Rogers seized on the opportunity of a follow up and set writer Norman Hudis the task of coming up with a medical comedy, tackling another great British institution - the National Health Service. Fortunately Norman's wife Rita was a nurse so he had plenty of real life experience to help make Nurse the biggest hit of the year and also a massive success in the United States. Rogers was clearly beginning to form a team for a series of films as Nurse sees the return of several key faces who not only contributed to Sergeant's success but would also go on to be series regulars for decades. As well as popular actors Shirley Eaton, Terence Longdon and Bill Owen, Nurse saw the return of Kenneths Williams and Connor, Charles Hawtrey and yes, Hattie Jacques. Other new faces included the important additions of Joan Sims and Leslie Phillips.
Hattie is back in a bigger role this time, clearly building on her success as Clark in Sergeant. Again in a medical-themed role, Nurse sees Hattie play the formidable Matron for the very first time. It's not as comedic a role as the Matrons that followed, indeed for the most part she plays it completely straight. She is extremely believable as the senior member of medical staff who strikes fear into the young nurses and demands respect from the male patients (Kenneth Williams being an exception!) Matron is blessed with some wonderful support from the likes of Joan Hickson, Shirley Eaton, Susan Stephen and Joan Sims. Jacques and Hickson make a wonderful double act as Matron and Sister and their scenes together as Matron goes round the ward are a joy. Hickson is superb as the cow-towing subservient who is quick to dump the load on her junior members of staff as soon as Matron's back is turned.
One of my favourite sequences involving Hattie sees a rather bombastic intellectual Kenneth Williams take on the formidable Matron and challenge her over one of her many bureaucratic hospital rules. The scene which sees Kenneth flout the rule not to lie on top of the bed clothes provides a masterful performance from both actors and there is a hint of real tension and animosity between the pair. There is a strong comic edge in both performances but it still, briefly, punches the film into a different direction. It showcases the skill of both Williams and Jacques and raises the film to a different level. It's also a very human scenario as once Jacques has to back down in the face of an unforgiving Williams, she immediately takes it out on her staff, with the list of jobs being past lower and lower down the chain of command. Great stuff, brilliantly played.
As always there is a glimmer of humanity in Hattie's stern comedy characters and there is no better example of this than in the classic daffodil scene at the very end of the film. It has gone down in Carry On history as one of the funniest endings to any Carry On. At the time it was also quite a daring gag to pop in and although nothing is actually visible, guest actor Wilfred Hyde White was actually on the point of starting proceedings against Peter Rogers as he didn't like it one bit! Fortunately the scene stayed in the film and it provides us with a last image of Hattie's Matron, showing a brief glimpse of humanity and affectionate teasing as she begins to enjoy the joke. It's a great way to end the picture and shows just what an accomplished actor Jacques was.
The legacy of Carry On Nurse cannot be underestimated. While Sergeant was the film that began all the fun, it was the huge success of Nurse which allowed a series to develop. It also created a long-lasting role that Hattie Jacques would capitalise on in further films, while also providing an image that would be hard for Hattie to shake off for the rest of her career. Did it limit her ability to take on different roles as an actress? Probably. Fans around the world still love both Hattie and her unforgettable Matron and as a legacy, surely that's not too bad.
Watch out for my next blog on Hattie's Carry On career. Next up is my take on Grace Short in the brilliant Carry On Teacher.