by Mark McKay (reprinted from LAUGHMAGAZINE #3, 1992)
The contemporary trend to movie sequels is not a new idea … indeed common plot themes or characters have occasionally been carried through films to form a series, enticing an audience on the basis of previous successes. Probably the most famous series of British comedy films have been the “Carry On”s, the “St. Trinians” adventures and the “Doctor” movies, all of which began in the 1950s.
In 1952 Dr Gordon Ostlere (under the pen name Richard Gordon) wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called Doctor In The House which proved to be a best-seller. Film producer Betty Box secured the cinema rights, and signed Dirk Bogarde to play the central character (renamed ‘Simon Sparrow’). At first, Bogarde was reluctant to do the role, thinking the part insignificant, but he finally relented. His fellow students at the fictional “St. Swithin’s” hospital were Richard Grimsdyke (Kenneth More), Tony Benskin (Donald Sinden) and Taffy Evans (Donald Houston), all four actors being at least in their thirties when the film was made. The plot had Sparrow joining classes as a new boy, but Grimsdyke, Benskin and Evans have all failed the previous year, in Grimsdyke’s case on purpose because his grandmother has left him a thousand pounds per annum to pursue a course of medical studies (and he considers this an adequate salary for life).
The film explores all areas of student life the problems encountered in bringing home a skeleton on a bus, coping with a landlady’s amorous daughter, and the horrors of exams made all the worse for cocky female classmates: “I expect a pass” – “One wonders which examiner will be frustrated enough to make it!”. The most intimidating member of staff is the senior surgeon Sir Lancelot Spratt, a splendid blustering performance by James Robertson Justice. His duties include instructing students as they accompany him on his round, examining patients. On one notable occasion he is explaining that the interval between the incision of the patient and the formation of a blood clot is known as the ‘bleeding time’. When he discovers Sparrow paying more attention to a pretty nurse than his lecture he exclaims: “You! What’s the bleeding time?” … “Er … ten past ten, sir”.
Doctor In The House was a runaway success, becoming the top moneymaker for 1954 and earning Kenneth More the BFA Best Actor award. Betty Box quickly arranged production of Gordon’s second book Doctor At Sea, signing Bogarde, Justice and French starlet Brigitte Bardot in her first British film. The opening shows a close-up of a Rolls Royce, and a commentary explains that to own such a car is a major goal of the medical fraternity. The camera then pulls back and the Rolls is revealed to be a hearse which is towing Simon Sparrow’s decrepit jalopy. At the surgery Sparrow thanks the undertaker for his assistance, who replies: “That’s all right, doctor … it’s always a pleasure to help a colleague”. The newly-graduated Doctor Sparrow runs away to sea on a cargo ship bound for the tropics, to avoid the clutches of the female of the species. Unfortunately the ploy backfires when he returns from a spell ashore in Belos and discovers the delightful Helene Colbert (Bardot) showering in his cabin. (For this scene the actress stripped off completely, much to the delight of the production staff) The Doctor has a personal steward, Easter (Maurice Denham) who had ‘private understandings’ with Sparrow’s predecessor, Dr. Flowerday, who apparently met some mysterious fate no one is willing to discuss. This time, James Robertson Justice plays the boisterous Captain Hogg, who becomes rather deranged during the voyage and issues an ‘abandon ship’ alarm in the middle of the night.
Two years later Bogarde and Justice, together with Sinden and Muriel Pavlow from the first film, were back at St. Swithin’s for Doctor At Large. Benskin is still experiencing problems. For his finals he has to examine a prostrate Sir Lancelot, whose secretary is puzzled by the sight of her boss on the floor: “Has Sir Lancelot passed out?”, to which the great man replies “Sir Lancelot has not passed out! And neither will you, young man!”. Sparrow, missing out on the Senior House Surgeon position, sets off to private practices … first to the Crippen-like Dr. Hatchet with a young wife who has desires on the new doctor (a fatal combination!). One of the patients is a teenage girl brought in by her mother who explains she has been having chest problems. Simon places a stethoscope to the girl’s heart: “Big breaths, Eva” -“Yeth, and I’m only sixteen”. Meanwhile Benskin has gone abroad to see a man who deals in medical degrees. On the boat coming back he decides to try a diagnosis on a young lady passenger: “You don’t look at all well – you look a little green” -“Not as green as all that, doctor!” He is approached by Lady Hawkins who offers him a lucrative position as her personal physician. When she dies, soon after, Benskin is left a bequest of £15,000 which, unbeknownst to him, is to be donated to a medical institution of his choice. When asked what plans he has for the money: “New ward?’ – “No, I think I’m a little young to be a guardian at the moment”. Meanwhile, Sparrow moves on to a plush West End practice run by Dr. Erasmus Potter-Shine, whose policy is ‘Good clothes are more important to a G.P. than a good stethoscope’, and veteran actor A.E. Matthews appears as one of his distinguished patients, the Duke of Skye and Lewes. Eventually they all return to St. Swithin’s where Benskin is caught napping during Sir Lancelot’s surgery: “Mr. Anaesthetist! If the patient can stay awake during his operation, surely to blazes you can!”.
Dirk Bogarde was unavailable for the next release Doctor In Love in 1960, and Michael Craig took over the lead role as Dr. Richard Hare, who finds himself a patient suffering from jaundice at St. Swithin’s. Upon his release, he and fellow doctor Tony Burke (played by Leslie Phillips in his first appearance in the series) volunteer for an anti-cold research unit where an incident with two strippers results in their dismissal. They then act as locums at the country practice of a doctor who is away overseas, but Burke’s activities cause him to be replaced by a pretty young female doctor, fresh from St. Swithin’s. But the course of true love is never smooth, and it is only Sir Lancelot Spratt’s timely appendectomy that causes them to live happily ever after.
Bogarde returned for Doctor In Distress, an original screenplay not based directly on a Richard Gordon novel but with the same characters. Sparrow is now a fully fledged doctor and Sir Lancelot Spratt has a new breed of students to instruct as he does the rounds. He examines a model with a sprained ankle by placing a stethoscope to her chest: ‘Why am I doing this, Gillibrand? ’‘Practice, sir?’ Gentle bedside manner is not one of his strong points – he describes to a patient the difficulties involved in stuffing his innards back in after an operation: ‘It was like trying to coil a fire hose into an overnight bag’. The plot centres around Sir Lancelot; in laying a new hospital foundation stone he falls and slips a disc in his back. His previous disbelief in physiotherapy is eroded as he falls in love with his therapist (Barbara Murray). He calls on Simon for advice on how to woo her and this leads to a retreat to a nature clinic to lose weight, a gentleman’s corset fitting and even a spying expedition as his jealousy mounts. Leo McKern plays an important American film director who has lost his voice and there is an uncredited appearance by Ronnie Barker.
In 1965 Leslie Phillips reappeared in Doctor ln Clover but this time as Dr. Gaston Grimsdyke who returns to the hospital where his brother Miles works under Sir Lancelot. Arthur Haynes puts in a solid performance as the stubborn, know-all patient, Tarquin Wendover. He complains of shooting pains from his war wound: ‘A lump of shrapnel hit me right up the…’ … ’Rectum?’ … ‘Well it didn’t do ‘em any good!’ Equipped with The Home Doctor book he gives fellow patients the benefit of his medical knowledge: ‘Take my advice, I should start reading short stories’. Gaston falls for a French physiotherapist and needing to look younger, makes an excursion down swinging Carnaby Street for a trendy Beatles suit and a haircut. Back at the hospital a new matron (Joan Sims) has taken charge and rules with a rod of iron until she tumbles off her high horse at a party livened up with laughing gas canisters. The 60’s fashion and language and the songs by Kiki Dee contribute to Clover’s more modern look.
There was a five year break before the last movie, Doctor In Trouble, based on the book Doctor On Toast however Doctor At Sea II could have been a more apt title. Leslie Phillips is Dr. Tony Burke once again, who winds up as a stowaway on a cruise ship captained by Sir Lancelot’s brother, George Spratt (Robert Morley). Also on board are Basil Beauchamp who is the star of TV soap opera Doctor Dare (no prizes for guessing what this is based on), played by ephemeral disc jockey and talk show host Simon Dee, and common-as-muck pools winner Llewellyn Wendover (any relation to Tarquin?), a classic creation by Harry Secombe. Most of the comic highlights are confrontations between the brash Wendover and the pompous captain: there is a running gag with Llewellyn dressing inappropriately for meals – for the first dinner he is told to don evening wear and attends in pajamas and dressing gown. Next day he is wearing a dinner suit, but for luncheon and he is informed that he should only wear black tie at dinner. Taking this literally he rolls up for the evening meal naked save for a black bow tie. Another passenger is mutton-dressed-as-lamb Mrs. Dailey (Irene Handl) who introduces her dancer daughter, Dawn to the captain: ‘She does wonderful things with her legs’. With the finest gold-digging intentions, she is keen to match Dawn with Wendover, whom she sees as an ‘illegible bachelor’, however when the cruise finishes we learn Wendover’s big pools win only amounted to £22 that week! Supporting actors are Graham Stark as the Indian valet Satterjee, Fred Emney and Graham Chapman, who is a camp fashion photographer. There is also an appearance by Geoffrey Davies, who starred as Dick Stuart-Clark in the Doctor In The House series which had started on television … but that’s another story.
The Doctor Films
All seven Doctor films were produced by Betty Box and directed by Ralph Thomas
1953 Doctor in the House
91 minutes (colour)
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Muriel Pavlow, Kenneth More, Kay Kendall, James Robertson Justice and Donald Sinden.
Screenplay by Richard Gordon, Nicholas Phipps and Ronald Wilkinson, based on the book by Richard Gordon.
Top British moneymaker of 1954.
1955 Doctor at Sea
93 minutes (colour)
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Brenda de Banzie, Brigitte Bardot, James Roberson Justice, Maurice Denham, Michael Medwin and Hubert Gregg,
Screenplay by Richard Gordon, Nicholas Phipps and Jack Davies, based on the book by Richard Gordon.
1957 Doctor at Large
104 minutes (colour)
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Muriel Pavlow, Donald Sinden, James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Virginia Maskell, Carole Lesley, Reginald Beckwith, Joan Sims and Liz Fraser.
Screenplay by Nicholas Phipps, based on the book by Richard Gordon.
Top British moneymaker of 1957
1960 Doctor in Love
98 minutes (colour)
Starring Michael Craig, James Robertson Justice, Leslie Phillips, Virginia Maskell, Carole Lesley, Reginald Beckwith, Joan Sims and Liz Fraser.
Screenplay by Nicholas Phipps, based on the book by Richard Gordon
Top British moneymaker of 1960
1963 Doctor in Distress
112 minutes (colour)
Starring Dirk Bogarde, Samantha Eggar, James Robertson Justice, Mylene Demongeot, Donald Houston, Barbara Murray, Dennis Price and Leo McKern.
Screenplay by Nicholas Phipps and Ronald Scott Thorn based on characters created by Richard Gordon (but not on any specific novel)
1965 Doctor in Clover (also released as Carnaby MD)
101 minutes (colour)
Starring Leslie Phillips, James Robertson Justice, Shirley Anne Field, John Fraser, Joan Sims, Arthur Haynes, Elizabeth Ercy, Fenella Fielding and Jeremy Lloyd.
Screenplay by Jack Davies, based on the book by Richard Gordon
1970 Doctor in Trouble (also released on video as Every Girl Should Have One)
90 minutes (colour)
Starring Leslie Phillips, Harry Secombe, Angela Scoular, Irene Handl, Simon Dee, Robert Morley, Freddie Jones and James Robertson Justice (in a cameo)
Screenplay by Jack Davies, based on the book Doctor On Toast by Richard Gordon
# Dirk Bogarde did a brief cameo as “Simon Sparrow” in We Joined the Navy in 1962