Carry On Doctor SE Review
One of the strange limitations of British film comedies is that they have rarely made the most of the great ‘stand-up’ comedians of any given era. Morecambe and Wise never successfully transferred their humour onto film - they had enough trouble transferring to ITV - and there was no greater success for Peter Cook, Spike Milligan or anyone from the Alternative comedy revolution of 1979 onwards. This is particularly odd when one considers how well American comics have fared on film - Bob Hope and Woody Allen being perhaps the finest examples, along with Robin Williams Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin. But Britain seems to have an incomparable ability to stop comics being funny the moment a film camera is pointed at them. Frankie Howerd, one of the funniest men of the last century, tried harder than many of his peers, headlining a number of films from The Runaway Bus to the piss-poor Up The... series inspired by his TV smash “Up Pompeii”. His appearance in Carry on Doctor makes it one of the most interesting of the long running series, largely because it manages, for short periods, to capture some of the manic energy which made Howerd such a great presence on stage.
In terms of being a Carry On film, Doctor isn’t anything very special. Obviously intended as a successor to the Anglo-Amalgamated era Carry On Nurse, it wheels out some barely living corpses in place of jokes and relies heavily on the excellent team of regulars to keep it going. Set in Finisham Hospital, it concentrates on the trials encountered by young Dr Kilmore (Dale) and the Nurse who adores him (the charming Anita Harris) as they negotiate two wards, one male and one female, trying to avoid the baleful eye of Matron (the indomitable Jacques). Dr Kilmore is a hopelessly accident prone houseman who trips over everything in sight, his clumsiness increasing whenever he catches sight of Nurse Barbara Windsor - in her usual role as a nubile young tease. This allows for a lot of slapstick and even more references to Nurse Windsor’s bosom than you might expect. It takes about five minutes for her to get her dress off, by the way, which is four minutes longer than usual. Presiding over the putative hi-jinks, along with Matron, is Dr Tinkle (Williams), a self-regarding sadist who delights in punishing his patients for their health problems. These patients include Sid James, who appears to be playing the taxing part of Sid James if Terry Johnson’s TV play “Cor Blimey !” is to be trusted, Bernard Bresslaw, trying to get off with a female patient and reading his lines with all the spontaneity of a tired old whore, Charles Hawtrey, suffering from a sympathetic pregnancy which has the odd effect of making him out to be quite virile, and Peter Butterworth, who manages to be funny despite having not one single good line.
Best of all, the patient whose condition is central to the film is Frankie Howerd, playing mind-over-matter guru Francis Bigger. Howerd doesn’t have to do much to be funny - like Kenneth Williams, he simply is funny. The few decent bits of comic dialogue are shared out between him and Williams - there is one divinely funny but all too brief exchange between the two men, who apparently were not what you’d call the best of friends. It becomes apparent from the start that Frankie Howerd is going to be the best thing in the film and it’s his appearances that make the film worth watching. Making the most of every little innuendo and every moment of dejected sarcasm, he makes the film seem much more enjoyable than it actually is. In comparison, the antics involving Sid James and co seem rather tired. Howerd also gets the best moment in the movie - when a nurse hands him a daffodill to smell he says, “Oh no you don’t. I saw that film !”, a disarmingly postmodern reference to Carry On Nurse.
Otherwise, it plods on in uninspired fashion and the talents of the team are sorely tested. It seems rather perverse to have Charles Hawtrey as an obviously heterosexual husband and Sid James, a bolt of energy, confined to bed when he could surely be a dirty minded porter or ambulance man. Hattie Jacques is, however, wonderfully funny and oddly sexy as Matron - at one point in the commentary Jim Dale says how nice it was to be held by her “in amongst all that flesh” and it’s easy to believe him. Her interplay with Williams is a delight, not because of the dismal dialogue but because they are two actors who obviously adore working together. The comic sparks they create are, along with Howerd, the best reason to see the film and were one of the few things worth watching in the dismal sequels, Carry On Again Doctor and the slightly less dismal Carry On Matron.
Carry On Doctor comes pretty low in my list of the best films of the series. It’s too reliant on obvious jokes and even more obvious innuendos, and the innuendos are never as daringly extended as they are in later films like Convenience, where Talbot Rothwell gets at least three good laughs out of each one. However, it’s not a total disaster either and compared to Carry On Again Doctor, a film so weak it’s virtually dead, it looks pretty good.
This is another of Carlton’s excellent new series of Carry On special editions, replacing the bare bones, fullscreen VCI releases from a few years ago. It’s obviously the best version of the film we’re going to get and it’s generally rather impressive.
The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format which looks to me like 1.78:1. Some people have argued that the fullscreen releases were preferable because the films were open matte but this release clearly represents the way they were seen in cinemas and that’s good enough for me. It’s a very pleasing transfer from a print which has obviously been carefully cleaned up. There is no obvious damage and no trouble with artifacting. The image looks a little drab and the colours look rather subdued but it’s still a considerably better viewing experience than you might expect.
The soundtrack is in Mono, reflecting the original recording of the film. It sounds very nice indeed, with no hissing or crackling, and the music comes across particularly well. I’d never noticed how inventive Eric Rogers could be until I heard some of the crystal-clear string work on this copy of the film.
There are a number of extra features. The main ones are an audio commentary from Jim Dale and an episode of the 1970s “Carry On Laughing” TV series. This latter item is called “The Baron Outlook” and is a complete, unmitigated disaster. Good performers like Sid James and Joan Sims battle with the sort of comic dialogue which predates the Domesday Book and eventually admit defeat. The audio commentary is better, although it’s more of an interview in which Carry-On anorak Robert Ross guides Jim Dale through his professional life with occasional references to scenes in the film. Dale comes across as a pleasant man who is has affectionate memories of his days in these films but has no desire to go back to them. There are quite a few dead spots but it’s a good track and worth a listen.
We also get the original theatrical trailer, which gives away most of the good moments from the film as they tended to do back in the sixties. There is a lovely stills gallery with, unusually, intelligent captions to tell you what you’re looking at. There are also a few pages of trivia, pointing out that Carry On Doctor was at one point intended to be the last in the series, and explaining why there is a portrait of James Robertson Justice’s Sir Lancelot Spratt (from the contemporaneous Doctor series) on the wall.
There are English subtitles for both the film and the episode of “Carry On Laughing”. The film contains 10 chapter stops and the menus on the disc are animated and amusing (although they become irksome when you have to get through them for the third time).
Carlton have produced another good disc for their special edition range and fans of Carry On films will no doubt already own it. For casual viewers, this isn’t the best of the series but it’s not the worst either and the DVD makes it worth considering if this sort of comedy appeals to you.