A rude interloper had come trampling over the more sedate world of the “Doctor” franchise, a gentle comedy now in its fifth iteration and even surviving a brief interlude minus original star Dirk Bogarde. Carry On Nurse (1959), the second in that series, had been a massive box office hit and a jolt to the cultural senses.
Who knew that the upright Brits would condescend to a film that depended on smutty jokes, leering male characters and inuendo? But it did open up the mini-genre of films about nurses where they could be presented as ordinary people rather than being heroic in some global famine-stricken or war-torn trouble spot. And make the nurse the top-billed character rather than a doctor’s sidekick whose main characteristic was to whimper at the star in the hope he might take a fancy to her.
But where the eponymous character in the Doctor series started out as hapless, lovelorn and bullied, here District Nurse Jones (Juliet Mills) has taken a leaf out of the robust book of Hattie Jacques, the bossy, no-nonsense, unperturbed Matron in Carry On Nurse. Not quite as over-the-top as that Matron, she more than holds her own, in perky fashion, in a patriarchal society, answering back a holier-than-thou vicar and dealing with a lecherous patient.
Nurse Jones has shifted from the city to the bland sleepy backwater village of Blandley in part to help her scatterbrain mother (Emma Cannon) cope better with, well, everything. Naturally, romance beckons, between Nurse Jones and local farmer Henry Edwards (Ronald Lewis), although any chance of love blossoming is imperilled by her lack of driving skills (106 lessons to pass her test).
Competent and confident and with a light riposte for every domineering male, it’s a shame that at the first sign of love she turns into a whimpering wreck. But there you go, confident women were acceptable in those days but everyone knew emotion would soon get the better of them. There’s not much in the way of plot, overcoming initial suspicions of patients coming to terms with a younger nurse, the various oddities of her charges, romantic rivalry between Nurse Jones and vicar’s daughter Deborah (Joan Sims).
But it is charming in an old-fashioned English way and certainly the camera adores Juliet Mills (Twice Round the Daffodils, 1962) though she’s neither given much drama to play with nor little opportunity, beyond the ripostes, to develop as a comedienne. Made in black-and-white on a leaky budget I had expected this to be a B-feature, propping up a double bill, but in fact it was given a circuit release on the ABC chain as the main (and sole) feature.
Will keep you entertained on a rainy Saturday afternoon, sufficient witty lines to raise a chuckle along with the batty mum’s battles with telephones, cupboards and rubber plungers. Not sure audiences wouldn’t have preferred smut and inuendo or the more polished presence of the Doctor cast.
But standing out as one of the few movies – comedies or dramas (and pre-dating the mid-60s cultural shift) – where a woman was in control of her own life not subservient or submissive to any passing male, feminism before that word took real root.
Supporting cast includes Joan Hickson (television’s Miss Marple), Carry On alumni Jim Dale and the aforementioned Joan Sims (who would have taken the lead role apparently had she not put on weight), Derek Guyler (Please Sir! television series) and Noel Purcell (Mutiny on the Bounty, 1962).
Director Gerald Thomas could churn out these light-hearted vehicles with his eyes closed and given he helmed the Carry On series shows remarkable restraint.