Thursday 5 July 2018

Carry On Nurse! Celebrating 70 years of the NHS

It's been all over the news for a while and rightly so. Today marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the National Health Service. Normally you can't mention the NHS without the conversation turning achingly political but we're going to keep it nice and light on the blog as we commemorate this wonderful milestone.

I listened to a discussion on the radio not long ago about a special BFI season of films looking at how television and film has portrayed the NHS. Well for me, you need look no further than the Carry On films. The Carry Ons have become synonymous with the National Health Service and some of the most famous, best loved films in the series have been set in hospitals. Peter Rogers, lauded producer of the series, once said the hospital comedies were so popular as everyone knows what it's like to be in hospital and it really does help to have a jolly good laugh.

Even now, more than half a century after Hattie Jacques first donned the famous Matron uniform, most newspapers can't resist using an image of the actress alongside articles calling for the return of Matron's discipline. Such is the strength of the Carry On brand and the imagery of Hattie, Kenneth, Barbara and that daffodil. The Carry Ons went behind the scenes and provided a humorous, touching and affectionate take on the health service which was never cruel or mocking. Thankfully they didn't go down to the gory Casualty route and medical procedures were relatively few and far between, apart from Leslie Phillips' pesky bunion! 

It was writer Norman Hudis who first brought the idea of a medical comedy to the attentions of Peter Rogers. Norman was to produce a script as a follow up to his national service comedy Carry On Sergeant, so why not focus on yet another great British institution? The authentic feel to Carry On Nurse was provided by Norman's wife who was a nurse at the time. She provided some of the best set pieces and Norman gagged it all up gently. 

That first medical Carry On gave us some deliciously seductive nurses in Shirley Eaton, Ann Firbank and Susan Beaumont; Joan Sims as the accident prone junior nurse; fearsome authority in Hattie Jacques and Joan Hickson; a wide range of sneaky, awkward, down to earth patients in the likes of Kenneth Connor, Kenneth Williams, Cyril Chamberlain and Charles Hawtrey and some delightful hospital visitors in June Whitfield, Marianne Stone, Jill Ireland and Irene Handl. What a cast!

Almost ten years later Talbot Rothwell brought us a wonderful tribute to Norman's iconic Carry On when Carry On Doctor was released in 1967. A swinging sixties follow up to Nurse, all the familiar stereotypes are present and correct - Kenneth Williams' big headed surgeon, Hattie's bombastic Matron and Jim Dale's kindly, human and put upon doctor. Doctor also gave us Barbara Windsor's iconic Nurse Sandra May, wiggling her bottom and fancying a bit of Peter GIlmore's pear. The patients enjoying or enduring a stay in hospital eventually revolt against the hierarchy, headed by Bernard Bresslaw, Peter Butterworth, Sid James and the amazing guest star Frankie Howerd. It is Frankie's Francis Bigger who is subjected to the resurrection of the delicious Carry On Nurse sight gag involving that infamous daffodil. This time it's not Joan Sims and Wilfrid Hyde White, it's Frankie and the gorgeous nurse Valerie Van Ost. What confidence the series had to be so self-referential!

Two years later, we were Carrying On Again Doctor, which focussed less on the NHS, throwing in a trip to a tropical medical mission and a private weight loss clinic. Despite this, all the familiar characters are there - Jim Dale's handsome yet accident prone doctor (yes, that hospital trolley); Hattie Jacques' as a slightly more kindly Matron and Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey as rather conniving senior doctors. By now the Carry Ons were forever interlinked with the NHS, doctors and nurses. 

The final Carry On with a medical theme came along in 1971 when Talbot Rothwell scripted a tribute to Hattie's iconic character - Carry On Matron. Based around a Too Many Crooks attempt to rob vast quantities of the pill from Finisham Maternity Hospital, much of the action centres around the hospital misfits of Hattie, Kenneth Williams and Charles Hawtrey (playing Dr F. A Goode!) Patients are few and far between this time apart from an ongoing side story of Joan Sims' never-ending pregnancy and never-satisfied appetites! Kenneth Connor is amazing as the put upon nervy father to be while the nursing staff are glamorously represented by Jacki Piper, Barbara Windsor again and Kenneth Cope in drag (it's a long story). And who can forget Terry Scott's rather grim, grotty Dr Prodd. An aptly named character if ever there was one.

Hospitals did feature in other Carry Ons, albeit to a lesser degree. In 1960 there was an extended sequence set in a hospital during Carry On Regardless. This involved Helping Hands boss Bert Handy (Sid James) being involved in a case of mistaken identity which caused much chaos in the wards. In a throwback to Nurse, Joan Hickson and Hattie Jacques were both present although this time Joan was the Matron and Hattie the Sister. June Jago is also there as a nurse, six years before she played Hattie's rather duplicitous Sister in Carry On Doctor. And in Carry On Loving ten years on from Regardless (indeed Loving was a modern tribute to the content and form of Regardless) we again return to the wards as Richard O'Callaghan's Bertie is knocked on the bonce by Bernard Bresslaw's Gripper Burke. When Jacki Piper goes hospital visiting Eric Rogers even resurrects his incidental music from Carry On Doctor. I just loved when the Carry Ons provided nods to the past.

The Carry Ons have become a part of British life. In many ways they presented a view of a Britain which never really existed. It was an inflated, stereotypical version of our beloved country, packed full of eccentrics. The series' treatment of the National Health Service was also far from reality - all jolly high jinks, sexy nurses and outlandish Matrons. True some of the stories stemmed from real events but us fans are happy with the Carry Ons staying clear of proper reality. I think we should be ever so proud of the Carry Ons' regular NHS tributes as that's what they were - affectionate, warm and full of appreciation. 

Happy 70th birthday to the NHS. 

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram

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