Tuesday 26 September 2017

Connor Carries On ... as Bernie Bishop

Next June will mark Kenneth Connor's centenary. This feels like the right time to celebrate the man's legacy and what better a legacy that his seventeen glorious performances in the Carry On films. As I've already done with the three main leading ladies of the series, I plan to embark on a series of blogs profiling each of Kenneth's roles in the Carry Ons, giving my own take on his contributions.

Kenneth is another one of those actors who worked steadily, prolifically and across all mediums throughout his career. From his very early days in film before the outbreak of World War Two, through the 1950s which saw him become an integral part of British radio comedy to the Carry Ons and his unforgettable roles in several 1980s sitcoms, Connor was an incredibly gifted actor. He worked right up until his death at the age of 75 in November 1993. However unlike Sid, Kenneth Williams or Barbara Windsor, I feel that Connor never really got the credit he deserved. He didn't have an outrageous private life, no scandals to be told. He shunned the limelight and his many performances as the ordinary man in the street mirrored his own life away from the cameras. 

Kenneth was also one of the precious few actors who's career spanned pretty much the entire run of the Carry Ons. He was there at the very beginning in Carry On Sergeant and, a five year gap in the mind 1960s aside, remained loyal to the films until the very end of the original run in 1978. Connor, along with Williams and Eric Barker were the only actors to appear in the very first and the very last of the series. Kenneth was still around when Columbus was made in 1992 but declined to take part, probably very wisely. This new series of blogs will be a celebration of all those wonderful comedy performances in the Carry Ons - from bumbling romantic lead through to crumbling character parts, Kenneth could play them all.

So let's continue with Kenneth's second role in the series, as injured boxer Bernie Bishop in the hit film of 1959, 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 Hattie Jacques. Other new faces included the important additions of Joan Sims and Leslie Phillips.

As with Sergeant earlier that year, Connor proves to be the star of Carry On Nurse, at least for me. Bernie Bishop, arriving in hospital with a broken hand after a boxing match, is the film's every man. Although there are lapses into the funny voices that made him such a vital part of Ted Ray's radio gang and there is a fair amount of bumbling and farce, Connor also proves himself as a straight actor in several scenes which tug at the heart strings. Norman Hudis always added a grounded reality and a touch of social realism to his scripts and in Kenneth Connor, he found a way to contrast the daft antics of Leslie Phillips, Joan Sims and Charles Hawtrey. Resisting treatment and determined not to stay in a hospital "full of sick people" Connor's Bishop is quickly taken in hand both by his straight-talking wife and the hospital nurses and very wisely gives up on his second fight of the night!

Connor shares a few brief but satisfying scenes with Susan Shaw as his wife Jane. Shaw had been a rising star in the British film industry however by the time she appeared in this, her one and only Carry On, her fame was on the wane and a sad future lay ahead. Susan is great in Nurse and forms a believable and touching on screen partnership with Kenneth that leaves the audience wanting more. Kenneth also interacts beautifully with several other male patients on the ward, most noticeably in his chalk and cheese relationship with the snobbish, snotty intellectual Oliver Reckitt played by Kenneth Williams. A solid friendship and mutual respect was formed between these two actors and it's clear they enjoyed sparring together on screen.

Kenneth also features in one of my favourite scenes in Carry On Nurse. No, not the laughing gas sequence although that is pretty great. Michael Medwin and Norman Rossington both provide brilliant cameos as Bernie's boxing manager Ginge and the rather slow-witted fellow boxer Norm. The scene during visiting time sees Medwin try and teach Connor's Bernie a few sly tricks of the trade with the help of dim Norm with calamitous results! Full marks to Norman Rossington for winning all the prizes here when he has very little to say or do. Classic stuff. The mix of shy reluctance and masculine phwoar-ing from Connor is a joy to behold in Nurse. He goes from deep, caring and sensitive husband to shy patient as Nurse Susan Stephen 'reaches the bottom' of things during a blanket bath. That doesn't stop him Cor-ing away as Stephen steps up on a chair next to his bed to open a window. Typical Carry On stuff but quite tame compared to what would follow in the years to come.

Kenneth plays well as part of the gang of male patients which includes Williams, Cyril Chamberlain, Terence Longdon, Bill Owen, Leslie Phillips and Charles Hawtrey, already the loner on the fringes of the action. Bernie plays an active part in the climatic hospital operating scene towards the end of the film and Connor's gift for comic timing comes to the fore. Leslie's upper class twit of a character (Ding dong, you're not wrong!) is anxious to have his bunion removed so he can escape for a weekend of forbidden fruit with girlfriend Meg (Dame June Whitfield no less). Under the guidance of Williams, the gang decide rather drunkenly to get rid of Leslie's bunion once and for all! However, unfortunately the laughing gas in the theatre gets the better of them. Kenneth Connor's delightful giggles steal the show and the entire scene is a joy and an early example of Carry On humour at its very best.

Finally special mention to the delightful cameo from Jeremy Connor, Kenneth's very own son at the end of the film. When Bernie Bishop is discharged, wife Jane and son Jeremy (what a coincidence) turn up to take him home. As Kenneth greets his son, there is an unscheduled slap to the face from young Jeremy which clearly takes Kenneth by surprise but Gerald Thomas wisely left in the final print! As the family strolls off down the corridor, it brings Kenneth's beautifully played performance in Carry On Nurse to a satisfying conclusion.

Next up will be my blog on Kenneth's return to the world of Carry On in 1959 when he played bumbling, lovable science teacher Gregory Adams in Carry On Teacher. Stay tuned for that! 

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