Doctor in the House (1954)

Today is the birth centenary of British actor Dirk Bogarde, which is why I’m revisiting a film that was a favourite of mine in my teens.

Dirk Bogarde, born Derek Bogaerde (his father was of Flemish ancestry, and Derek ‘Pip’ was born in Birmingham) served in the British Army, mostly as an intelligence officer, during World War II. The war took him to Europe (where he was one of the first Allied officers to arrive at the German concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen, a traumatic experience which he recalled, even years later, with horror and pain). In the wake of the war, Bogaerde (who had already begun working in theatre before the war) went back to acting, this time to cinema, where he took on the screen name by which he became famous. He signed a contract with the Rank Organisation, and it was in the Rank film Esther Waters (1948) that he got his first credited role.

Bogarde’s stint with Rank lasted till the 60s, after which he went on to work in a very varied set of films, moving on from the primarily matinee-idol, stereotypical leading man role he played in Rank’s films. This included several highly acclaimed and/or award-winning roles in films like King and Country, The Servant, Accident, The Fixer, and A Death in Venice. Bogarde’s homosexuality, which he never tried to hide, probably came in the way of his being a big hit in Hollywood, although back home in Britain he was very popular.

Which of Bogarde’s films should I review to mark his birth centenary, I’d wondered. One of the films for which he won a BAFTA award? Something highly acclaimed? Something worthy of a great actor? I even found King and Country online and bookmarked it.

Then, somewhere down the line, I realized I was not in a frame of mind that would allow me to watch a film that was sombre and serious, no matter how good the acting, how good the film. What I needed was something frothy and light, something that would make me laugh.

And then I remembered this one, the first of the Doctor series, based on the novels by Richard Gordon. This film had come my way in my early teens, when my sister (I think; or was it my father?) brought back a VHS tape of this from a trip to the UK. In my very first viewing of Doctor in the House, I fell in love with it. So much so that after that, I watched this pretty much every year for the next ten years or so!

Time for a rewatch, I decided.  

Dirk Bogarde plays Simon Sparrow here, a young man who arrives at London’s St Swithin’s Hospital (and Medical College) as a new medical student. Asking for directions from a passerby, Simon says “I’m a new medical student”, to which the man courteously replies, “And I’m an old doctor”. And when Simon asks which way he should go, the old doctor immediately suggests straight out the gate again.

This is not a heartening opening, but Simon perseveres. He sits through the address by the acerbic Dean (Geoffrey Keen), who makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of Simon turning up late, or for the bunch of students who keep failing, term in, term out.

Simon makes friends with three of the aforementioned term-repeaters, constant fixtures. There’s Richard Grimsdyke (Kenneth More, brilliant as ever), who keeps raising a toast to an obscure Mrs Rivington-Lomax, a benefactress. Not, as it turns out, of the hospital, but of Grimsdyke himself: she was his grandmother and was so fond of the medical profession that she wanted her grandson to become a doctor. To that effect, she included a bequest in her will: as long as Grimsdyke is studying to be a doctor, he will receive a thousand pounds a year.

Ergo, Grimsdyke makes sure he keeps studying and doesn’t stop.

Then, there’s Tony Benskin (Donald Sinden), a rake and a Casanova who spends most of his time wooing the nurses at St Swithin’s.

Finally, there’s Taffy Evans (Donald Houston), who is devoted to rugby. Life revolves around rugby for Taffy; getting through medical college doesn’t come anywhere close.

With help from these new classmates of his, Simon quickly finds his bearings. He is taken to meet Hubert, the gorilla mannequin, which is St Swithin’s rugby team’s mascot.

He is taken, too, to meet the padre. And why is this bearded gentleman who owns the nearby pub called the ‘padre’? Because a nervous patient, if told by a doctor that the doctor was going down to the pub, might be a trifle distressed; being told that the doctor is going to chapel might be more comforting. (Personally, I think that would be pretty stressful too; your doctor needs divine guidance?!)

Simon finds lodgings at a nearby home, where rooms are let to students. Here, unfortunately, the landlady’s daughter, Millicent (?) soon starts turning up at Simon’s room, complaining of pains here and there. In her ankle (Simon just about manages to stop her pulling up her skirt to slide her stocking down) and then in her hip—at this point, Simon shuts her out and decides to find alternate accommodation.

This ends up being with Grimsdyke, Benskin and Evans, all of whom share rooms, with Grimsdyke’s fiancée Stella (Suzanne Cloutier) living ostensibly downstairs but spending most of her time upstairs.

Grimsdyke’s love life is very satisfactory: Stella and he are very much in love, and very happy together. But Simon seems to have not a thread of a hope in the romance department, and Grimsdyke is convinced that Simon doesn’t even want to be celibate. So Grimsdyke takes it upon himself to find a girl for Simon to go out with… the nurse they call Rigor Mortis, perhaps? She’s good at heart, after all.

Or the passing high society girl, Isobel Minster (Kay Kendall), whom Simon sort-of rescues after she stumbles and falls just outside St Swithin’s?

But there’s the pretty nurse Joy (Muriel Pavlow) too, who always seems to rub Simon the wrong way, making him realize just how ham-fisted and clumsy he can be.

Not that one would imagine Simon would have much free time to do any serious romancing while pursuing his studies; not if one were to heed the words of the professor who says they’ve got to “Work, work, work!”

This is one of those films that doesn’t really have a plot. All that happens here is that Simon and his pals, along with their professors, the nurses, and patients, go on their way through medical studies, some light-hearted flirting, and lots of hilarious little episodes. A series of humorous vignettes, that’s what Doctor in the House is. It’s very light, fun stuff, not at all serious, and pretty enjoyable.

What I liked about this film:

The dialogue, which is really where most of the humour lies. True, there are some episodes that are funny in themselves, and the acting is uniformly good (James Robertson Justice as Sir Lancelot, Kenneth More as Grimsdyke, and George Coulouris as Briggs especially stand out as getting some brilliant lines, and doing justice to them)… but it’s the dialogues (by Richard Gordon himself?) which make this film what it is.

This is one of my absolute favourites; Sir Lancelot has got the students standing around a patient’s bedside, and Joy, who is standing beside Simon, is exchanging loving looks with Simon.

Sir Lancelot: “You cut a patient, he bleeds until the processes of nature form a clot and stop it. This interval is known scientifically as the bleeding time.” [turns to Simon and barks at him]: “You! What’s the bleeding time?”

Simon, flustered and shaken out of a romantic reverie, looks down at his watch: “10 past ten, sir!”

And this one. The students have all been arrested in the wake of a rugby match and some ‘rowdyism’ (as the Dean later puts it). The gorilla mannequin, Hubert, who had been the centre of much action, is produced in the police court along with the students.

Presiding officer, indicating Hubert: “And is that a medical student, too?”

Officer in the dock gives Hubert, who’s been propped up beside him, an exasperated look, but doesn’t say anything.

Presiding officer: “It might well be. It has the same lofty intellectual expression and hygienic appearance as the rest of them.”

And more, plenty more. I could go on and on; there are just too many delightful dialogues in this film.

There’s nothing I don’t like about Doctor in the House. It’s lots of fun, and the sort of film that doesn’t tax your emotions or your intellect. Just sit back, watch, and enjoy.

19 thoughts on “Doctor in the House (1954)

  1. Another Bogarde fan here. :) I love the Doctor series, the books I mean. Do you know I’ve never watched the film? Sounds like just the movie for me now.

    Enjoyed this review, Madhu.

    • And do you know, I’d never read this book (though I have read a couple of Gordon’s other books). I am reading Doctor in the House now and enjoying it a lot. Quite different from the book, but they’re equally funny in their own way, I think.

      Do watch the film, Anu. Just the one for times like this.

  2. Richard Gordon wrote a series of books on the ‘Doctor’ theme, starting with Doctor in the House. At least the first one seems a bit autobiographical. Even the protagonist is named Richard Gordon. The book is hilarious and certainly was a factor in my taking up Medicine. Every medical class has a Grimsdyke and a Benskin in it!Will certainly watch the movie!
    Nitin

    • I have very vague memories of reading Doctor at Sea many years ago, and right now (spurred on by my watching of this film), I’m reading Doctor in the House. Very enjoyable, though it’s quite different from the film (both are equally funny in different ways, I think).

      • We had many Prima Donnas like Sir Lancelot Spratt in our top rated Medical school in Mumbai. There was also a running competition ( with a lot of bad blood) between our college and another, which could lead to fisticuffs!
        Nitin

          • Don’t you think however that Dirk Bogarde and the other students don’t fit into the mould of callow and young medical students (usually we get admitted in medical school at age of 18-19 years). The Medical students in ‘Doctor’ look too ‘mature’!

            • In the West, they can only apply to medical school after they get their pre-Med qualifications (a 4-year degree) – so by the time they start Medical school, they are 22 years old.

              • In the book, however, Richard Gordon does mention specifically that he’s 18 when he joins, 23 when he graduates. So I do agree that Bogarde & Co. look too old to be medical students. But given that Grimsdyke etc have been repeatedly failing, I suppose it’s not too unbelievable – and Bogarde does look younger than the rest of them, I think.

  3. It seems to have been very popular in every medium. I’ve never seen any of the Doctor films or read the books, but when I used to listen to the BBC World Service I heard the radio series based on it. There were also tv series. ….just as a side note I recently overheard a conversation that contained this (I thought) interesting sentence “She went to medical school for fun.”…

  4. Madhu,
    Ditto Anu. I am a fan of ‘Doctor’ books. This is the first ‘Doctor’ film I watched. Liked the film, but I was not as overwhelmed as you are. This is no reflection on the movie, but enjoyment of reading a classic is at a different level than watching a film. I am now reading “Doctor on the brain”. Every page is dripping with British humour. Can’t imagine a film adaptation matching this. However, YT has two more Bogarde films: “Doctor at Sea” and “Doctor at Large”, and I plan to see them. Thanks for introducing me to the ‘Doctor’ films.
    AK

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