Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Big Breaths

In my book, ‘Matinee Musings by The History Usherette’, I wrote about how some of the medically minded Carry On films could indicate the progress of the NHS.   With lighthearted films such as these the writers would want to use scenarios that a typical contemporary audience would identify with. Therefore they unwittingly show us how the NHS was used and viewed at that particular point in time.

If I’d have decided to extend this essay outside the realms of Carry On, then my next port of call would have been the Doctor series of films.  Previously on this blog I have looked at ‘Doctor in Love’ and how this shows the type of research that was carried on into the common cold.  Most recently, I have been watching ‘Doctor at Large’ (1957).  This time, I was spurred into a muse about how the introduction of the NHS affected the traditional family doctor.  This came about after watching the wonderful scenes in this film which feature Lionel Jeffries and Dilys Laye. Their roles are short but splendid, as they get their teeth into playing a boring Midlands GP and his man-hungry wife.  Dirk Bogarde’s Dr Sparrow takes a job as an assistant doctor there; where he wrestles with Dilys’ pounces and Lionel’s sinister jealousy as well as demanding patients.   

"What's the bleeding time?" James Robertson Justice by @aitchteee
Jeffries’ character runs his surgery from his home and so that is where Dr Sparrow must work –and live too. He is shown to a bedroom at the top of the house – and being as though he is the one nominated to take on all the night calls he has no choice but to accept this. In situations such as these, the doctor’s wife was very much a part of the team – taking telephone calls, waking the doctor and being responsible for messages. For an idea of how demanding and tedious this could be then read Joyce Dennys’ book 'Henrietta’s War', which details the wartime adventures of a woman who is sick of always being known as the “Doctor’s Wife”.

Despite ‘Doctor at Large’ being filmed in 1957 this kind of set up is most definitely pre-NHS in its origins. When doctors worked for themselves they would often be based at their own home, where people knew where to find them at every hour of the day or night.  This was particularly important before the widespread installation of telephones.  This film then shows how long it took the NHS to overhaul the GP system and to develop surgeries and health centres like those that we know today.  In some respects, the old ways had to prevail while resources were found and doctors pacified and cajoled into changing. This is a lovely view of a mid-century medical backwater.

Dr Sparrow - Dirk Bogarde by @aitchteee
I must finish by reminding you of this film's lovely saucy seaside postcard vignette, seen in Dr Sparrow’s surgery.

Dr: “Now, let’s listen to your breathing…[produces stethoscope] Big breaths…”
Girl: “Yeth they are, Doctor…and I’m only thixteen.”

Priceless.  Just like the NHS.

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