It's the Carry On films' best-known series. Carry On Camping
spawned a similar sub-genre of holidaymaking Carry Ons, but that's perhaps more like self-plagiarism. Their four hospital films on the other hand are practically sequels to each other, with an additional fifth entry in their crossover in Carry On Regardless
. Hattie Jacques played the same role throughout and as such has been immortalised by Kenneth Williams's "Ooooh, Matron." She never got a name, incidentally. She was just Matron. Kenneth Williams was a patient in the first one, the Hudis-era Nurse, but thereafter was a doctor and the snooty object of Hattie Jacques's unrequited affections.
What's more, Talbot Rothwell is unusually aware here that he's treading in his predecessor's footsteps. It's in lots of little things, beginning with the title. Carry On Doctor is merely the short version. In full, it's "Carry On Doctor or Nurse Carries on Again or Death of a Daffodil or Life Is a Four-Letter Ward - A Bedpanorama of Hospital Life". Whew. Of those five names, the first is the real title and the last two are merely jokes, but the second and third are references to Carry On Nurse
. You may or may not recall that that film was based on a stage play set in a tuberculosis ward, also adapted more sombrely as Twice Around the Daffodils, but you're clearly expected here to have remembered Nurse's daffodil punchline. Frankie Howerd's character even refers to it, saying he saw the film. Then we have other self-aware moments, such as Kenneth Williams's first line being his catchphrase and someone else saying Leslie Phillips's ("Ding dong").
In fact it's something of a departure for the series at the time, with Talbot Rothwell having seemed to have settled into a groove of genre parodies, e.g. Hammer horror, Westerns, Beau Geste, etc. It's based in real contemporary life and has a bit more emotional depth than usual, although these things are all relative. It's still a Carry On film. Nevertheless we have:
(a) the Howerd-Sims subplot. Frankie Howerd is playing one Francis Bigger, a man who gives public speeches explaining that you can reach your physical peak just through the power of your mind. Naturally a ceiling falls on him. Howerd is so triumphant in the role that it's a shock to realise that he only did two Carry Ons, but the important bit involves his half-deaf assistant, Joan Sims. I didn't recognise her! She's playing a frumpy old stick, as if transformed into June Whitfield, and I'm starting to think that Sims and Williams were the two proper actors in the Carry On team. Anyhow, eventually we learn that Sims has been standing by Howerd for eleven years with futile expectations of marrying him, which of course he'd never do unless actually at death's door. This is a hospital comedy. Sure enough, he ends up thinking he's at death's door. Howerd's hamming it up far too much to bring any kind of emotional truth to their relationship, but Joan Sims creates just enough reality to carry him.
(b) the Sid James character. He's a dreadful old fraudster, pulling all kinds of tricks to seem ill and so prolong his stay in hospital. He likes it there. He's waited on hand and foot, he doesn't go to work and he's surrounded by pretty nurses. For the most part this is merely Sid James being Sid James, but when his wife comes to visit we see another side of him. She's a moaning old bag and a hypocrite with her bingo, but if even half the things she says about him are true, he's failed as a husband and father. Of course James doesn't care. He blocks up his ears and waits for her to leave. Nevertheless this is an example of hospital visitor scenes giving us a new perspective on familiar characters, which Norman Hudis did in Carry On Nurse
and now Talbot Rothwell's copying him.
(c) Jim Dale's Doctor Kilmore losing his job at the hospital. His confrontation with his superiors is the usual Carry On nonsense, but it's different when he's downstairs and saying goodbye to the patients on the ward. It's not high tragedy or anything, but it's hitting a couple of notes you don't expect to see from this series.
(d) the bleak view of marriage. In Frankie Howerd and Sid James, we have two dodgy old rogues who'd sooner spend time in a hospital bed than with their nagging wives.
I shouldn't overdo this side of things, though. This is still thumpingly a Carry On film, with all the above being merely a slight tweak on the usual innuendo, wordplay and mugging. Basically it's business as usual and a particularly funny entry in the series to boot. I've heard it said that this is the best of the hospital films and I may or may not agree once I've rewatched the others, but this it's definitely one of the better Carry On entries. The script works. I was laughing a good deal, with Frankie Howerd in particular storming the barricades. He gets more than his share of good lines, although maybe it's just the way he says them. I was startled to look on the internet and realise that this was his first appearance in the series. Even apart from him, though, the characters are memorable and the gags come at a good rate. I laughed at Jim Dale's skeleton-wooing and the Howerd-Sims wedding with a deaf bride and chaplain. There's even a throwaway bit where one of the patients removes his bandages to reveal that he's the Invisible Man.
The nearest thing I have to a complaint concerns the female hospital staff. This film brings back old favourites like Dilys Laye and Hattie Jacques, but somehow they've managed to cast Anita Harris and June Jago in the key roles of Nurse Clarke and Sister Hoggett. Neither Harris nor Jago is bad, but they're both anonymous in a film that's positively crackling with familiar faces who'll steal every scene that comes their way. Where was June Whitfield, or Rosalind Knight? I don't know if you'd even say that Anita Harris was principally an actress, having also been a singer, dancer, variety entertainer and nude model for Mayfair. She sang with the Cliff Adams Singers and had a number of chart hits in the 1960s. This was the second of her two Carry Ons. I recognised her, but she's not exactly Frankie Howerd. Meanwhile June Jago would make even less of a splash in the acting business, although I hasten to say that they're both acceptable.
Most of the cast, though... wow. There's so many of them, too! You see lots of people in a hospital. Kenneth Williams for once is again simply playing Kenneth Williams, camping it up something rotten and even more delicious than usual. I've never seen anything like his "I'm fine" wriggle here after drinking a vase of water. Here he's supposedly a ladykiller, being chased both by Hattie and by Babs Windsor, which is a must-watch in itself. Then there's the joy of having Hattie Jacques back again, for the first time since Cabby. Bernard Bresslaw is absurd and unconvincing again, this time doing a stupid voice, but it's good to have him if only because you see him in drag this time instead of Butterworth. Incredible. The man's a colossus. Look at the scene where Jim Dale's at his bedside. Bresslaw could have eaten him and not noticed. Two people fail to notice that he's not a real nurse, by the way. Sid James is wonderful, of course, albeit underused and mostly bedbound since in real life he'd recently suffered a heart attack. Jim Dale gets his second-best role so far, Peter "Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy" Jones makes one of his two Carry On appearances and of course there's Charles Hawtrey, who's playing an astonishing role even by his standards. His wife (eh?) is pregnant (and it's his?), but Hawtrey's the one who's swooning with morning sickness. It's his first baby, you see. I'm in awe. In all the history of the world there's never been another Charles Hawtrey.
Finally there's Barbara Windsor. I've saved her for last because I knew I was going to need time here. I like her, but she's a black hole that pulls the film into some kind of anti-matter universe of weirdness. This isn't the fault of Babs herself, who's always bubbly and likeable, but for some inexplicable reason the film has decided that she's sexy. She sticks out her chest, tries not to collapse under the weight of her hairdo and goes wiggling off, to the dribbling adoration of the camera and her male co-stars. I don't get it. She's like a wind-up doll. Maybe she's the female Christopher Lee, someone who's far more striking in real life? The film insists on showing us her in her slip (no thanks), her underwear (stop it) and even a bikini for a spot of discreetly topless sunbathing. Eh? Why should I want to see this? I was far more interested in that naked girl in the bath, who gives us some impressive glimpses of side-boob.
I really enjoyed this. It's one of surprisingly few thus far to hold up storywise as well as being a vehicle for classic British comedians. It also comes nearer than most to suggesting that its characters have inner lives. I was startled by the torture scenes at the end, but it's not as if those aren't procedures you get every day in hospitals anyway. More importantly it has Kenneth Williams at his most Williams-y, Frankie Howerd from before he disappeared Up Pompeii, the unstoppable Hattie Jacques, Sid James (all hail) and Charles Hawtrey getting unique material. It's a genuinely good film.