Carry On Nurse

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

5 July

UK National Health Service created, 1948

On this day in 1948, Britain’s National Health Service came into being. Based on the recommendations of 1942’s Beveridge Report, which proposed “comprehensive health and rehabilitation services for prevention and cure of disease” it was designed to be funded through taxation and free at the point of delivery. It is in essence a health insurance  and provision system administered and run by the government. It ran as a unified system in the UK until 1998, when its various functions were devolved to the regional “national” governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Total funding for the NHS in the UK is around £128bn ($218bn) per annum (2012/13 figures). It treats over 1 million people every 36 hours. It is one of the big four global employers (the Chinese Army, Wal-Mart and the Indian Railways are the other three). In a recent report by the Commonwealth Fund, a US-based private foundation, the NHS came out top in terms of efficiency, cost and performance, with Switzerland second and Sweden third. The data used was the Fund’s own, alongside other data from the World Health Organisation and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The US came out top for having the world’s most expensive healthcare system, last in most other respects. However in terms of the health of its people, the UK was second to bottom, with the US bringing up the rear.

Carry On Nurse (1959, dir: Gerald Thomas)

The Carry On series of films – working class humour doled out in a variety of settings – ran from 1958 to 1978 (with an abortive attempt to revive the corpse in 1992 with Carry On Columbus). Carry On Nurse is one of the best of them, made when the series was still fresh enough to look vibrant, tuned in enough to reflect actual events out in the real world, and with a cast who were still unjaded enough to give it their best shot.

The most successful film of the series, the biggest British film at the box office in 1959, a hit in the USA too, it’s also, now, something of a historical document. It’s set in a hospital, one of those new-fangled NHS places, where the novelty of the whole free healthcare idea is taken as simultaneously absolutely marvellous and ever so slightly oppressive. The oppression comes mainly in the figure of Hattie Jacques, playing the battlecruiser matron trying to keep a general men’s ward of variously ill people happy and her ward clean and efficient. What little plot there is revolves around the burgeoning (and boring) romance between Nurse Denton (Shirley Eaton, later sprayed in gold in Goldfinger) and Ted York (Terence Longdon), a journalist with appendicitis. Around them circulate a gaggle of complaining curmudgeons who are in for a variety of small maladies – a bunion, a broken hand and so on. No cancer or myocardial infarction here. And the humour revolves around body parts, practical jokes, the inherent amusement of the existence of such a thing as a bedpan or the mention of the word “catheter”.

As with the films which followed, it is all expertly played, with a good number of what would later be considered the Carry On core on board. Kenneth Connor, Charles Hawtrey, Kenneth Williams, Joan Sims and Hattie Jacques are all there, while occasional Carry On-er Leslie Phillips plays a charming philanderer and gets to say “ding dong”, a phrase that became his trademark, and still gets a smile in the UK, especially when uttered in an imitation of Phillips’s fruity drawl.

Unlike the later films, sexual innuendo is used as caviar rather than carbohydrate, a small salty spoonful here and there. For the most part the humour is visual, often slapstick, with the odd nod towards social politics (the major in the private ward constantly making demands). What’s noticeable, as it was in Carry On Sergeant the year before, is the egalitarian feeling that pervades the whole enterprise, the “we’re all in it together” spirit of wartime persisting in a country that had only finally come off rationing five years before. Though let’s not go overboard – there is a reason why the authority figure of the Matron is a figure of fun.

The fit between working class humour and an institution designed to improve the health of the bulk of the population was total, and the Carry On team would return to the area three times (Carry On Doctor, Again Doctor and Matron). And there were three unsuccessful attempts to make Carry On Again Nurse.

Why Watch?

  • If you like Carry On movies, this is one of the best
  • Charles Hawtrey – camp superstar
  • A daffodil instead of a rectal thermometer
  • Hattie Jacques’s career-defining Matron

Carry On Nurse – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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