Thursday 19 July 2018

Bernie Carries On … As Ken Biddle

Over the past year I have written a series of blogs covering each of the roles of some of our favourite Carry On stars. I began my looking back at each film role played by the three leading ladies in the series - Joan Sims, Hattie Jacques and Barbara Windsor - and most recently I've written about all of Kenneth Connor's Carry On performances in the run up to the great man's centenary. 

Today I am beginning a new strand of this series by turning the spotlight on that gentle giant of British comedy, the late Bernard Bresslaw. Probably one of the most under-rated actors in the main team, Bernard was a part of the series for ten years and fourteen films, tackling a superb range of crumbling villains and delightfully dimwitted foils to the likes of Sid James and Kenneth Cope. Bernard enjoyed a long career away from the Carry Ons and spent much of his later life wowing audiences in legitimate theatre. However he will forever to remembered for his clutch of hilarious Carry On supporting turns. 

Bernard joined the Carry On team in the mid 1960s and along with Peter Butterworth was the last main team member to join the gang. Along with Butterworth, Bernard played a series of smaller, supporting roles to begin with before graduating to major roles towards the end of the decade. Bernard fitted in effortlessly with the rest of the team and he's the kind of actor who is working hard but making it look oh so easy. A quiet, erudite, thoughtful family man away from the film studios, I often think Bresslaw has never received the credit he's due as like Connor and Butterworth, he didn't ever seek the limelight or splash his life over the front pages.

So today, we'll continue this new series looking at Bernard's role as hospital patient Ken Biddle in his fourth Carry On, a return to the hospital wards, Carry On Doctor in 1967.

This was a momentous film for the series. Carry On Doctor saw one of the biggest cast of Carry On favourites ever to feature in the same film. It also saw the first guest starring turn from the master, Frankie Howerd. Doctor was one of the first films in the series to reference past successes too - the use of the daffodil in the scene between Valerie Van Ost and Frankie is a direct reference to the 1959 smash hit, Carry On Nurse. The presence of the portrait of James Robertson Justice in the hospital lobby is also a direct nod to Betty Box's hugely successful series of Doctor comedies. And Carry On Doctor also saw the return to the series of three main players. 

After a three year absence, Barbara Windsor was back with the gang following her debut in the 1964 film Carry On Spying. Doctor would see Barbara begin a film a year tradition with the team right up until 1974. Sid James was also back, although in a reduced role following a serious heart attacsome months before. His character spends the vast majority of the film in bed. And most importantly of all for this particular blog, Carry On Doctor saw the return of Hattie Jacques after four years away from the series pursuing other projects. Looking back at it now, it's hard to imagine the film without her, however Jacques was obviously far from the minds of the production team as the role of Matron was originally offered to her close friend and co-star Joan Sims. Joan however knew Hattie must play the legendary role so passed over the part and instead took on the supporting role of Chloe Gibson, the hilariously hard of hearing companion to Frankie's Francis Bigger. 

Carry On Doctor is very much a homage to Carry On Nurse. It's broader, cheekier and very much a 1960s version but it remains true to the series' heritage. It's Talbot Rothwell paying tribute to Norman Hudis' landmark script. As with Nurse there is a large communal ward of male patients, lots of lovely nurses and a fearsome Matron. The film follows the story of the charming if accident prone Dr Kilmore who is popular with the patients, less so with the hospital management. Following an accidental yet incriminating situation with Nurse Sandra May (Windsor), Kenneth Williams' Dr Tinkle and Hattie's Matron join forces to see off Kilmore. The patients, upset over this matter, get together to restore the natural order to the hospital.

So what about Bernard's role in the film? Well for Bresslaw comes of age as a Carry On top team member with this film. For the first time in the series he plays a very familiar version of his simple but kindly character from the smash hit sitcom, The Army Game. He's just a down to earth, working class bloke, stuck in hospital sharing a communal ward with many more of the same. I love the interplay between Bernard and the other male patients - Sid James, Peter Butterworth, Frankie Howerd and Charles Hawtrey. It's the heart and soul of the film and their camaraderie is very much reminiscent not just of the film's direct predecessor Carry On Nurse, but also of the barrack room larks in Carry On Sergeant. 

The closeness of the male patients sets up the grand finale of the film when the patients rise up against the corrupt hospital hierarchy of Matron, Dr Tinkle and Sister (Jacques, Williams and June Jago). It's a lovely comedy version of David versus Goliath and it really does give the audience something to root for. After all, the powers that be have been pretty awful throughout the film. Much of Bernard's role in Carry On Doctor surrounds his blossoming romance with female patient Mavis Winkle, played by the delightful Dilys Laye in her third appearance in the series. As Ken Biddle has his leg in plaster it provides a good source of humour as he limps along the corridor between the male and female wards in an attempt to communicate with Mavis. Many of his attempts are thwarted by Matron and it becomes something of a running joke as the hospital staff do not approve of fraternisation! 

I love Bernard and Dilys together on screen. So did the audience of the time and the Carry On producers as they teamed them up again the very next year in Carry On Camping. Much like Kenneth Williams' hospital romance with Jill Ireland in Nurse, there are moments of real pathos between Bernard and Dilys and their scenes are very much played for real. They are obviously two quite lonely people and the characters provide some lovely warm moments in amongst the riotous comedy. There is plenty of comedy in their story though - Biddle's unsuspecting hospital visiting mate Fred (Julian Orchard) gets a stomach full of castor oil while he takes Ken's place in bed so he can visit Mavis is lovely stuff as is Mavis being made to switch beds with elderly patient Lucy Griffiths leading to a major misunderstanding when Jim Dale's Dr Kilmore passes on a note! 

Of course no Carry On is complete without a bit of dragging up and not for the last time, it's Bernard's turn. Something about Bernard's height and stature made the sight of him in drag particularly amusing. When the patients decide to rise up against Dr Tinkle and Matron, Sid sends Bernie into the women's ward to recruit their services to bring down the medical staff. To do this, Bernie drags up in Nurse Clark's uniform (yes, that's right Bresslaw fits into Anita's costume) and manages to fool Sister, despite a wayward pyjama trouser leg! It's a lovely scene and brings together a lot of what the Carry Ons mean to me - innocent, childlike panto comedy delightfully played by a host of irresistibly brilliant actors. 

One thing always frustrates me about Bernard's role in Doctor. I keep seeing a still of Bernard and Dilys leaving the hospital, their characters in the foyer in a scene with Jim Dale and Anita Harris. Obviously the scene was cut from the final print but I wonder why. Perhaps it was over-running and deemed superfluous to the story, but I think it's a shame. It would have been nice to see their story wrapped up in this way at the end of the picture.

So that's my thoughts on Bernard's role as Ken Biddle in Carry On Doctor. Stay tuned for my next blog in this series, as I look back at Bernard's role as another fiendish villain, Bungdit-Din in the classic Carry On Up The Khyber!

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  1. I watched this the other day, and loved one of Bernard's lines.
    "I dreamt about you last night," he says to his love.
    "Did you?" she replies.
    "No. You didn't let me."