It was in 1939 that Ralph Thomas joined the Rank Organisation and it was here that he met Betty Box who was to become his producer in a partnership that lasted for twenty-five years. He began directing in 1940 but his commercial breakthrough did not come about until 1954 when he helmed the first of seven movies that become known as the ‘Doctor film series’. The films were developed from a series of comic novels written by a British physician Richard Gordon. They were basically about a group of young inexperienced doctors and it was one of these books that Box picked up at the beginning of a long rail journey. On her return she convinced Rank’s executives that people would be interested in seeing a film about doctors - and she was proved right.
The first three and the fifth Doctor film starred Dirk Bogarde as Dr Simon Sparrow. It was this role that made him one of the biggest British movie stars of the 1950’s proving that he had matinee idol appeal and was more than capable of playing light comedy roles.
Recently Film4 have been showing the third film in the series Doctor at Large (1957) and I took the opportunity to reacquaint myself it. This story opens at St Swithin’s Hospital where Dr Sparrow hopes to practice surgery. His chances diminish when he fall’s foul of the hospital’s chief consultant (James Robertson Justice). To earn a crust and gain experience he begins looking for ‘positions’. The film indulges it audience in a series of episodic episodes with Sparrow working for various and varied medical practices.
The quality of these stories varies but two in particular are worth noting. The first when he takes a general practice job in an English industrial town ‘up north’ working for the skinflint Dr Hatchet (Lionel Jeffries) where he gets most of the work to do including night calls from both the patients and Hatchets young randy wife Jasmine (Dilys Laye). The second is when he takes a temporary job at the Harley Street practice of Dr Potter-Shine (Derek Farr) where all the patients are rich and most are dotty aristocrats or neurotic society women, one of whom played by Barbara Murray falls for our young Doctor.
The potency of these films is in the characters it portrays, all played by well known British acting stock including Shirley Eaton, Muriel Pavlow, Michael Medwin, Edward Chapman, Mervin Johns, Dandy Nichols and many many more familiar faces. Yes, it is a little dated and its attitude to women at times leaves a bad taste but it’s an enjoyable enough film made at the heyday of the NHS.
When our present authoritarian coalition government finally gets rid of free heath care in England we will be able to look back at the Doctor series with found memories of a cherished institution.