Friday 28 September 2018

Nurse v Girls: How Times Changed

This weekend Film4 and ITV3 are showing two very different Carry Ons. While 4 are putting on the second film in the series, Carry On Nurse, written by Norman Hudis, ITV3 are showing Talbot Rothwell's penultimate effort, Girls. The two films, although part of the same comedy series, couldn't be more different. Yes, there are fifteen years between them and times had clearly changed, but the Carry On series had almost altered beyond recognition.

The 1959 release Carry On Nurse was a relatively coy, black and white film mixing social comment and real life medical scenarios with gentle comedy put across by a cast of seasoned pros. There is even a spot of tender romance for Kenneth Williams and Jill Ireland and a few tear jerking scenes featuring the likes of Kenneth Connor as down to earth boxer Bernie Bishop. Hudis was a master of blending all manner of thematic threads together and presenting a film of surprising depth. 

Carry On Girls was very much of a contrast. Made in 1973, all vestiges of sentimentality or gentle comedy were lost. It was panto humour all the way and while that's still very funny, Girls lacked a great deal of the old fashioned charm. It's clear, in retrospect, that Rogers and Thomas had instructed Rothwell to join the trend of more near the knuckle humour which matched changes in box office demands from a more liberal British audience. It's still relatively tame by today's standards but there's been a noticeable shift in content and tone.

The two films do have some things in common. Both are proudly British - I can't imagine another country producing films like these! They also feature a certain degree of social commentary with Nurse looking at the goings on in the National Health Service and Girls examining the tradition of the beauty contest. Girls touches on the politics of these contests as well as the rise of feminism and even features an albeit very broad, basic portrayal of a lesbian character. Despite this Sid is still very much Sid and Barbara still very much Babs. The two films also feature several actors who appeared in both the 1959 and 1973 films and I think the true picture of how the series had changed can be seen by the characters they played.

Joan Sims
(Carry On Nurse - Nurse Stella Dawson / Carry On Girls - Connie Philpotts) 

Joan, a stalwart of 24 Carry Ons, made her debut in Nurse in 1959. Stella Dawson was a young, accident prone junior nurse and pretty much a picture of innocence. She was keen but slightly gobby and learning the tricks of the trade as she went along. The bottom rung of the ladder, she was still a cheerful character full of hope. By 1973, Joan was on full on middle-aged harridan mode as frustrated hotelier Connie Philpotts. Forever being given the runaround by Sid's Councillor Fiddler, she's quickly passed over in favour of nubile Hope Springs (Barbara Windsor). Connie was a one dimensional character and one of Joan's weakest in the series.

Kenneth Connor
(Carry On Nurse - Bernie Bishop / Carry On Girls - Mayor Frederick Bumble)

An original cast member, Connor was the main star of the early Norman Hudis era films. He usually played bumbling working class men with big hearts and big dreams. In Nurse he was the everyman of the piece, brought in with a broken hand after a boxing match and separated from his wife and child (Susan Shaw and Jeremy Connor). He views all around him with gentle humour and bonds with upper class, well-educated Kenneth Williams. By Girls in 1973, Connor's characters were frustrated little men of middle years and middle management. Girls is possibly the finest example of this - head of a crumbling local council and stuck in a dreary loveless marriage, it's a portrayal full of quiet desperation that life hasn't turned out as he'd hoped.

Joan Hickson
(Carry On Nurse - Sister / Carry On Girls - Mrs Dukes)

The Carry Ons were lucky to have Hickson in five eye catching supporting roles. A scene stealing actress who like many was above the material she was working with, Joan made her first appearance as the rather severe, yet fair Sister in Haven Hospital. Feared by the nurses beneath her, Sister in turn looked up to and was frightened of Hattie Jacques' bombastic, humourless Matron. Hickson's Sister did have a human side though when she encouraged Shirley Eaton's Nurse Denton to follow her heart with one of the male patients, recently discharged of course. Fast forward 15 years and Joan was back one final time to play a rather batty old dear staying in the hotel who ends up with her unmentionables flying from a flag pole…

June Whitfield
(Carry On Nurse - Meg / Carry On Girls - Augusta Prodworthy)

June was already a well-known voice by the time she made Carry On Nurse thanks to her radio work in Take It From Here. June's small role as Leslie Phillips' straight-laced girlfriend Meg was very 1950s post-war values. June really came into her own with her return to the Carry Ons in the early 1970s. And militant feminist Augusta Prodworthy was a pretty extreme version of her earlier character. And that sums up the change in the Carry Ons - all the characters were bigger, more extreme and more outlandish. 

So there you have it. A lot had changed during the making of the Carry Ons, that we know. Both in the country at large as well as in what film producers churned out and audiences demanded. Looking back nearly sixty years after Carry On Nurse and 45 years on from Carry On Girls, I know which I prefer. 

What about you?

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