Sunday 27 January 2019

The Star of … Carry On Nurse

I have decided to dedicate a new series of blogs to what I consider to be the very best performances in each of the thirty original Carry On films. As ever, it's a purely personal take on these films from yours truly and of course you are welcome to agree or disagree as you see fit! 

Since I started the blog in 2015 I have often championed the underdog or the under appreciated. The Carry On series employed hundreds of cracking comedy actors during their twenty year lifespan and while I've done my best to celebrate as many of them as possible, there is still much to do to preserve their legacy. Some of the actors featured in this new series will be household names and leading lights, others perhaps not so well known. Whoever they are, I hope you enjoy reading about my chosen few.

The first in this series saw me write about my love for Kenneth Connor's role as Horace Strong in Carry On Sergeant and today, moving forward to later in 1958, we focus on another Kenneth. Kenneth Williams, along with Connor and Joan SIms, was one of the true stalwarts of the Carry Ons and his memorable appearances spanned the entire original run of films. Kenneth was one of the core team members from the off and while some of his later turns in the series were wildly camp and full of obvious innuendo, Williams earlier roles, scripted by Norman Hudis, offered something a little bit different. Always recognisably Kenneth and always hilariously funny, but these early roles offered depth and a touch of pathos.

Carry On Nurse takes much from the success of Sergeant and follows a similar story pattern. Hudis, buoyed by his previous tale of national service recruits, plonked several familiar faces in not an army barracks but a hospital ward. There are much the same high jinks and low comedy but this time around the film gently targets the National Health Service and not the army. The film also benefits from a greater number of female characters bolstering the returning Hattie Jacques, playing her formidable Matron for the very first time. The addition of nurses in the shape of Shirley Eaton, Joan Sims, Susan Stephen and Ann Firbank and visitors such as Marianne Stone, Jill Ireland and June Whitfield takes the film in a refreshing new direction.

It's another case of the everyman against authority as the film pokes fun at some of the potentially ridiculous aspects of staying in hospital. In amongst a cast of actors which boasts Bill Owen, Charles Hawtrey, Terence Longdon, Leslie Phillips, Brian Oulton, Cyril Chamberlain and Kenneth Connor, Williams shines as the most interesting character and also possibly the funniest. As the bookish intellectual Oliver Reckitt, Kenneth is not quite the effete loner Hawtrey plays, but is definitely a stand alone character who looks down both on many of his fellow 'inmates' but also many of the bureaucratic medical men (and women). Upper class, fussy and sneering, Oliver takes pleasure in pushing back against regulation and regularly takes on Hattie's fearsome Matron. Seeing these two pros come face to face for the first time in a Carry On is an absolute joy to behold.

I love the interaction between the two Kenneths in Carry On Nurse. Connor is the working class, easygoing and down to earth boxing champ Bernie Bishop in the next bed. The two neighbours couldn't be any different in character. Bernie constantly misunderstands Oliver's highfaluting command of the English language and cannot understand why he's so stuck up, serious and removed from real life. In turn, Williams' Reckitt is curious about Bernie but clearly views his occupation as 'savage' and does not understand many aspects of his way of life. There is an earthy, if occasionally coy sexual awareness about Connor's character - happily married with a child and interested in the young nurses who tend to him. Oliver on the other hand is completely unaware of the various charms of Susan Stephen or Shirley Eaton. Which brings me to the most interesting part of the film where Kenneth's character is concerned.

Oliver is visited several times by Jill Ireland's character Jill. The sister of one of his friends, Jill takes an obvious interest in Oliver although it's all very coy and cosy 1950s romantics. Oliver meanwhile is totally oblivious and is merely interested with the books she has brought in for him. Connor's boxer in the next bed spots Jill and her clear fondness for Oliver which leaves the academic in a delightful fluster. What makes the scenes between Kenneth and Jill Ireland so charming is that in amongst the usual frothy Carry On comedy, their scenes are genuine and played for real. There is lovely chemistry between Kenneth and Jill and it's rather a unique experience to see Williams playing it straight (no pun intended) and developing an on screen romantic relationship. Compare these scenes with Hattie Jacques forcing her way into Kenneth's tent ten years on in Carry On Camping and it's light and shade. There is a place in the Carry On cannon for both but I have such an affection for these early scenes.

One of my favourite scenes from Nurse involves Kenneth taking on Hattie's Matron. During one of her rather tense, authoritative rounds of the ward with Joan Hickson's chastened Sister bowing and scraping behind her, Kenneth dares to question Matron's rule that male patients shouldn't lie on top of the bedclothes! Bruce Montgomery's music swells to a dramatic climax as these two legendary actors square off in the hushed ward! Williams wins through as he cuts Matron dead, returns his spectacles to his face and reclines on his made up bed to read one of his lofty tomes. It's a brilliant set piece which balances comedy, reaction shots, a cracking script and real proper acting! 

Kenneth also excels in the climatic scenes of Carry On Nurse. After downing a fair quantity of champagne with his fellow male patients, Kenneth boldly claims that he could easily operate of Leslie Phillips' troublesome bunion, therefore allowing him to go off for a naughty weekend with girlfriend Meg. With the help of a book of practical surgery, the tipsy Kenneth leads his band of men through the sleeping hospital to one of the gleaming operating theatres for rather a dramatic and beautifully lit scenes. As Leslie's Jack Bell (Ding Dong) sobers up and changes his mind, his mates use brute strength to hold him down as Surgeon Williams scrubs up and camps up! 

Kenneth is in full on toffee-nosed intellectual mode as he larges it over the rest of the men but unfortunately the laughing gas has been left on and slowly but surely the men all begin to feel the effects! Kenneth Connor's giggles are pretty infectious to the audience but it's the unmistakable campy cackle of Kenneth Williams which rules the scene as, nostrils flaring, he almost takes the turn into Hammer Horror. Scalpel in hand, he refuses to let go of Leslie's foot! It's one of the few times in the film that Kenneth loses grip of the subtle acting I so enjoy in the film. However given these moments are few and far between the instances of high camp and almost 'snide' character are refreshing, hilarious and an utter joy. Sadly as the films found their footing, Kenneth's 'snide' began to grow legs and take over. But for now, there's plenty to enjoy in his excellent performances.

Kenneth's character gets a happy ending as Nurse concludes. Discharged from hospital, Jill's character is there to meet him and the pair walk off, arm in arm. There aren't many other instances of this kind of thing in a Carry On, at least where Kenneth Williams is concerned. Yes, he joyously camped about down Brighton Pier with Patsy Rowlands, crushed Gail Grainger's itinerary in Carry On Abroad and dug up all kind of artefacts with Elke Sommer in Carry On Behind, but the screen partnership with Ireland is one of Kenneth's finest moments in a Carry On. So Kenneth Williams is my star performer in Carry On Nurse … stay tuned for my next blog in this series, looking at the star turn from Carry On Teacher.

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