Monday 15 October 2018

Bernie Carries On … As Ernie Bragg

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 continuing 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 Ernie Bragg, a part of Sid James' criminal gang in the 1971 medical comedy cum crime caper, Carry On Matron. 


The basic premise of Carry On Matron is an update of previous medical entries (Matron!) The saucy Seventies allowed even more near the knuckle humour and Talbot Rothwell takes full advantage with a script that is part hospital knock about farce and part crime caper. Sid James and his gang of Bernard Bresslaw, Bill Maynard and Kenneth Cope plan a Too Many Crooks like heist on Finisham Maternity Hospital to steal a load of morning after pills. To do this, Sid's screen son Cope goes under cover in drag as a student nurse, attracting the dodgy attentions of Terry Scott's amorous Dr Prodd in the process. Scott is at his most lascivious here in his final Carry On role and he plays the part extremely well. 

Away from the crime caper element, the rest of the film sees three Carry On stalwarts camp about the hospital with innuendo-encrusted delight. Joining Jacques is an on form and over the top Kenneth Williams as Sir Bernard Cutting and Charles Hawtrey in his penultimate role as Dr F.A Goode (!). Although Charles is criminally underused in the film, he does have some priceless moments with Williams during the "newts" sequence and again with Hattie with all the comic misunderstandings as they sit down to watch television together in her room. The appearance of Hawtrey, however brief, could lift any script and this would be proved again and again once he had left the series in 1972.

So what about Bernard's role in the film? Once again Bernie is very much a supporting player but his acting prowess and flair for comedy keep him front and centre. While the medical mayhem of Williams, Hawtrey and Jacques take centre stage and Kenneth Cope's brilliantly innocent criminal in drag proves wonderfully eye-catching and sympathetic, we mustn't overlook Bresslaw's superlative turn as the ultimate dim-witted crook. In many ways Bernie is playing an updated version of the character he played in the already mentioned Too Many Crooks, a classic of its kind. He blends elements of that performance with his stock in trade Army Game simpleton and Ernie Bragg is always one step behind the rest of the gang.

Once you get past the ridiculous sight of Bernard's long flowing wig (!) it's straight down to business as he plants himself in the back of Sid's car alongside Bill Maynard as they survey the object of their criminal affections - the Finisham Maternity Hospital. One wonders why Ernie is part of Sid's gang as he contributes very little and sticks out a country mile but as always, Bernard's height is used to great advantage, particularly in a prolonged appearance in drag towards the end of the film. I love Bernard's reaction to Kenneth Cope's first appearance in nurses' uniform and trendy 70s lady wig. He quite naturally falls under Cyrile Carter's spell, despite the fact Cyril has his trousers on under his skirt and boasts a couple of rather unconvincing fake boobs!

Without a doubt one of the finest sequences in Matron sees Sid, Bernie and Bill Maynard sit down to discuss their plans to break into the hospital. For no specific reason, the whole scene is dominated by a rambling tale about London bus routes that would not have been out of place in a West End revue. It's inspired, slightly surreal stuff and provides a wonderful breather from the madcap farce in the hospital wards. The dialogue between Sid, Bernie and Bill is so natural, so effortless it just raises the entire film up to a different level. My only problem is that we didn't get more of it! 

Bernard's own high point in the film must be his turn in drag as an extremely unconvincing expectant mother who Sid uses to get into Finisham Hospital late at night to steal the birth control pills. Somehow fooling Arthur the security guard, Sid and Bill guide Bernie's dragged up mother to be to the lift, but the only big bang that follows is a load of dynamite which wakes up half the hospital and brings on Mrs Tidey's much delayed labour! What follows is the much anticipated Carry On film finale which sees the entire hospital chase Sid, Bernie and the gang around the hospital corridors. The sight of Bernie, still in drag, a little straw hat atop his female wig and him caringly shielding his fake baby is a joy! 

In the end, Sid's gang are released without charge and with Cyril settling down with Barbara Windsor's Nurse Ball, Sid plans the next big raid for the remnants of his gang. The idea of going undercover in a nudist camp is step too far though and the last shot of the film sees a speeded up Bernie and Bill taking flight and running for the hills! 

So those are my thoughts on Bernard's role in Carry On Matron. Stay tuned for my next blog in this series, as I look back at Bernard's role in the classic Carry On Abroad!

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