Sunday 19 January 2020

Guest Blog: Carry On Nurse and other myths, by Helena Sage

In a brand new guest blog, regular reader and Carry On fan Helena Sage writes about her love of a medical Carry On and a deeper look at hour nursing staff are represented in these classic comedies.

So in the first instance let me declare my conflict of interest. I am the greatest of Carry On fans, I am a feminist and I am a trained nurse. None of this sits well with Carry On and its treatment of nurses and women and minorities does it?

However I must say a lot of the depictions of nursing in the Carry Ons have a degree of truth. They are not a million miles away from some of my experiences of nursing in the 1980s and nurses that I know that started their careers even earlier say it is very truthful. 

The Carry Ons and also the Doctor at large series with Dirk Bogarde show the hierarchy and sexism which took place in most London teaching hospitals. The stereotype of Sir Launcelot Spratt and Dr Tinkle (played by Kenneth Williams in the Carry Ons) was largely based on a reality, as was the relentless degradation of the house officers and medical students. The Consultants persecuted the junior doctors and medical students and Matron persecuted the ward sister the ward sister tormented the staff nurses in turn the student nurses. It’s just the way it was.

One of my contemporaries describes it this way:

‘These people were relatively prevalent in the 1980s, ‘I worked with quite a lot of them. There were some absolutely superb surgeons and physicians. Really superb but fundamentally flawed. They would put their own social life and personal agendas ahead of their clinical practices. It was an odd thing to watch.’’ says the professor of intensive care medicine at University College London- Hugh Montgomery.

As in many areas of the arts you must ask the question does Art reflect society or create it.

I do not believe that the depiction of woman and specifically nurses by the Carry On films was its own individual creation, it was a reflection of the times. The freedoms that we enjoy as women in this century were not in existence when these films were being constructed. In addition the casual sexism of everyday life was perfectly acceptable in society and in the workplace. No one questioned it especially those in the receiving end of it. Maybe as women we were compliant in a kind of ‘if you can’t beat them join them way.’

I recall as student nurse we hated our uniforms on day one of issue and at the first opportunity we found a seams mistress that enabled us to take them in by a couple of inches and in addition made our uniforms shorter . By the time we had customised them they fitted extra tight which resulted in a Barbara Windsor type of wiggle as we walked about the wards. Make up was frowned on but we all sneaked on some mascara and eye liner.

The porters at the London teaching hospital I trained at had a little lodge based by the main hospital front doors and had a prime view of the coming and goings of the hospital. They would give every nurse a nickname and were not so flattering. They made up  weekly hall of fame (which yours truly made on a few occasions) with categories. I will leave to your imagination what those categories were.

As women there was no thought to be offended and it would have made no difference if one did. They were burly salt of the earth types the porters, cockney London Fulham geezers (think Sid James)  that heckled and cat called as we  swished past the lodge in our navy blue red lined nurses capes with a haughty look on our faces. 

FYI …Being Greek …they named me ‘Goddess’ or ‘H’ and I heard bellowed at me with a wolf whistle  each shift change. I took to giving them a wave and ‘Good Morning/Evening Ian/Bob/Frank/Smithy’. You had to keep on their good side they could be life savers when you needed blood quickly from the bank or a drip stand or even if a body had to be removed pronto as the admissions were coming thick and fast from A&E. The Nurses treated them as irreverent schoolboys and we knew that in their own way they had utmost respect for us. 

There is an episode in the Carry Ons when Kenneth Williams is about to conduct a ward round and the ward staff and patients are in a state of high anxiety trying to achieve perfection in all areas. This was very much how it was for Consultants ward rounds. This scene is by no means fiction

Ward rounds especially by surgeons could result in spectacular humiliation, on anyone the Doc chose to focus their wrath upon. If he (and it was always a he) was displeased by the tiniest of details all hell broke loose. Even the patients were petrified and ridiculously compliant (unlike those on the carry on films). Patients were referred to as ‘the appendectomy in bed 4 or the laparoscopy in room 2’. I myself was at the tail end of the wrath of a professor of arterial surgery when I forgot to remove a bandage on a diabetic foot quick enough. 

Nowadays it would be totally unacceptable.

Fast forward to 2019.Dominance, arrogance, aggressiveness, and egocentricity are out. In are: integrity, honesty, and the ability to recognise stress in yourself and your effect on others. The modern NHS is a place where employment practices and bedside manners are much changed from the depictions in the Carry On Films and the Doctor at Large films. But then society is unrecognisable. Some may say political correctness has gone mad. But one cannot respect women and have a degree of humanity in our health service without drawing a line. It was really bullying and harassment by any other name.

I must have had a rebellious streak in me because I specialised in sexual health; primarily HIV /AIDs care where the hierarchy had been smashed by a largely irreverent non-compliant male gay patient group. No uniforms no deference patients made the rules for doctors and nurse to abide by. Homosexuality was only made legal in 1967 and I was in the job in 1990 so the change was remarkable. Gay men had found a voice and financial and political power despite the ghastly spectre of HIV/AIDs. They made us get rid of our uniforms to preserve their confidentiality and they called us by our names. They made us change our visiting hours and introduced many changes which we work by now.

 There were no camp Charles Hawtrey type characters either. They were educated assertive informed men. The gay community was no longer repressed. I also had the privilege of working with many DRAG artists.

Dressing up as women in the Carry On films is common. Think of Carry On up the Khyber, Carry on Screaming and many more. Dressing up as a woman is done very badly with reluctance and forced upon Bernard Bresslaw or Kenneth Connor or some other and it results in high jinks .The Drags artists I met were beautiful and professional and spectacular performers.

In the Carry Ons having to dress up as a woman was the joke it was the humiliation. Well not in the 1990s; trans was a whole new way of living. I was lucky enough to be invited a few times to Madam Jo Jo in Soho to drag performers in all their glory. Could we ever have accepted in the Carry on decades that this was a chosen way of life, I doubt it so we laugh at that which is not understood. 

Changing the way Film represents, or fails to represent, people who are not white, straight, or male, will require making systemic changes and we continue to change and evolve. We can be smug and point fingers at the past and comment on the sexism racism or homophobia of the Carry on franchise and other films. But as the ‘me too’ movement showed we are still not where we should be despite what we may think.

Much has changed and improved and Carry On was a product of its time .What then does film in 2019 say about our world right now.

You can follow me on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and on Instagram


  1. Oh please,these films were never meant to be representative...they were supposed to be fun...!!!
    Yes they were sexist in tone,but not one sided,the men were in fact shown to be dafter than the women,and more often than not the ladies were shown to be attractive and sensible...Times have undoubtedly changed,but please take these films for what they were at the time and not relate them to today's societal norms ...

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  3. I work in the NHS and I wouldn't say it's nearly so rosy today compared with yesteryear as you. There's much PC rhetoric, of course, but perpetual claims of bullying and harassment. It's culturally quite different, of course - but is the culture so much better - or even at all better? From a feminist perspective, I'm sure - but that's just one of a number.

    For example, many lament the loss of the 'servile' nurse, who wasn't too good to get her hands dirty... When foolishly made a graduate job and new class of underlings had to be created to do the dirty stuff (healthcare assistants). Out, too, went the old-fashioned notion of vocation to nursing (and its disciplined connotation as exemplified by the 'Sgt Maj - Hattie).

    However inevitable change was, was it for the better...? That's probably better answered by patients than nurses...

  4. I'm confused. First you state that the salt of the earth porters, deep down, respected you. Then you state that there could be no respect for women without the PC of today.

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