Carry on Matron is perhaps one of the better later instalments in this film series. There's always plenty to laugh at in Finisham Maternity Hospital, including an excellent bit of cross dressing by Kenneth Cope. One of the star turns in this film is Kenneth Connor's British Rail uniformed expectant father. He is kept waiting an age for his wife (Joan Sims) to finally stop eating and give birth. Perhaps the funniest line in the film is delivered by Matron (Hattie Jacques - who else?) when Connor complains about the extended delay to his paternity. "We'd be in a right mess if we ran the railway like that" he blusters, to which she replies in her inimitable style "I was under the impression you did." It's either that or the scene between Doctor Prodd (Terry Scott) and the young woman who has an aged husband and a lodger - but I'll not spoil it if you're planing to watch it again soon!
But as well as being a very funny film, it is also a museum piece in its portrayal of a maternity hospital. I've had two stays in a maternity ward to compare this with. The first obvious change is shown by Kenneth Connor and Joan Sims not having any scenes together. In modern hospital births, the father is encouraged, if not expected, to stay with the mother at every step of the labour and birth. It might be frowned upon if a father opted out of the process. Being present at their child's birth is a badge of honour amongst modern fathers too. It seems as though this considerable shift in attitudes has taken place over quite a short time. I happen to have been born just weeks after the release of this film, and I asked my parents if this aspect of the story accurately reflected attitudes at the time. My Dad did apparently stay with my Mum for quite a good part of the labour - so the depiction of fathers being banished to a waiting room is not quite true to the time. But this was filmed as attitudes were only just beginning to change - and Carry On films do rather rely on traditional roles and attitudes for their humour.
I believe that this must have been the cusp of change because my Dad was sent away when complications set in. In the end he wasn't present at my birth, he was counting tiles in a waiting room. So there was still an overhang in the belief that some things were just not suitable for a man to witness. Or perhaps they thought that he would be in the way, or panic or faint! This is of course a laughable viewpoint to us now, and a poor decision. When complications set in during my second child's birth and I was suddenly surrounded by a crowd of medics wielding strange instruments, I was glad of a familiar presence. It was good to have someone who I knew shared my concerns and was on my side - and who was not, like me, exhausted and high on drugs and generally rendered incapable by the whole thing. In our times this is wholly understood - but not 40 years ago. Back then, doctor knew best.
My parents were born in the 1950s - the Jennifer Worth years - and we know from her memoirs that fathers were not appreciated at births them. So labour room changes seem to have taken place on a par with the move towards female equality. Perhaps full equality will never be reached until a man gives birth!
Other indicators of the age include the dirty nappy chute, used as an escape route by thieving Sid James and his gang. Did hospitals really take responsibility for providing and cleaning nappies? Disposable nappies completely took over from washable ones during the early 1980's (Chesterfield Museum displays a wrapper from the first line brought out by Robinsons in this period). This negated the need for washable nappies and they all but disappeared. However, washable nappies have made a comeback due to environmental concerns, and I used a washable nappy system with both of my babies. The maternity ward that I used however had a rather sniffy attitude towards them - in fact I got a bit told off for using them on my newborn. It was too much trouble for the ward staff to help change them while I was having a blood transfusion. And I wasn't asking them to wash them - my Mum was taking away the dirty ones! If maternity wards did used to wash nappies for new mothers, then that just shows how resource allocations have shifted.
Finally, the more recent squeeze on resources is also evident in Joan Sims' prolonged stay in hospital. I think that it is a well known fact that at one stage, new mothers used to be kept in hospital for several days. Now, the shortest stay feasible is the norm - with mothers who are in the early stages of labour being sent home and told to come back later when contractions are more frequent. If a birth goes smoothly and mother and child are both well, discharge can take place within hours. I think that this is a change for the better. Hospitals are not the most conducive environments for bonding with your baby - far better to do this in your own home with your extended family around you.
Much has changed for the better in terms of our maternity and medical care over the past 40 years. But I have to say, I wish Hattie had been in charge of my maternity ward. Some of the staff and patients were in need of that stern look and no-nonsense caring. Bring back Matron!
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