One of the most fondly remembered early seventies Britcom’s was the London Weekend Television (LWT) Doctor series that began with the wildly popular Doctor In The House in 1969. For the next twelve years the format would prove so popular that a total of six different series were made. Not many people realize, but the popularity of the series actually dates back to 1952 when real-life doctor Gordon Ostlere, writing under the pseudonym Richard Gordon, penned a humorous part-truth, part-fictional account of his experiences in the medical profession. Titled Doctor In The House, the book quickly became a national best seller.
Little did Gordon realize that this first book would eventually spawn a highly successful and long-lasting industry. The popularity of the book was so great that in 1953, the book was turned into a feature film starring Dirk Bogarde, Kenneth More, Donald Sinden, Kay Kendall and James Robertson Justice. The film proved immensely popular too.
Gordon would go on to write a further fourteen novels. In addition, a further six films were made including several radio and theatrical productions. Even early British television did not escape the charm of the series when a single farce play based on the first novel was adapted by Ted Willis and was screened on BBC TV on June 5, 1960.
But, despite all of the series popularity, it wouldn’t be until 1969, some seventeen years after publication of the first book that the first television series appeared on British TV. Naturally, this too proved popular and by 1991 some 11 seasons and 161 episodes had aired.
The very first series, Doctor In The House, debuted on LWT on July 12, 1969. In this TV version, the cast of characters and the storylines of the original novel were updated to reflect the ‘swinging sixties’. In truth, these episodes, and all those that followed in the succeeding series, were based only loosely on Gordon’s original work, being authored for the small screen by an array of young writing talent with a decidedly Monty Python bent. John Cleese and Graham Chapman both would write for the series, while Chapman and Graeme Garden, who contributed numerous scripts were both qualified medical doctors and so were especially appropriate writers.
As with the original Richard Gordon stories, all the action took place at the (fictional) teaching hospital, St. Swithin’s, with a fair amount of nurse chasing and nudge-nudge innuendo and bedpan humor thrown in.
The cast was strong featuring such now well-known actors as Barry Evans, Robin Nedwell, Geoffrey Davies, George Layton and Ernest Clark. The recurring theme of this series, and indeed most of the succeeding series, was the clash between the keen interns and the intimidating Professor Loftus (Ernest Clark). Michael Upton (Barry Evans) was the lead character of the bunch – an earnest type, but easily led astray by his colleagues, the latish Duncan Waring (Robin Nedwell) and Paul Collier (George Layton), and the smooth wastrel Dick Stuart-Clark (Geoffrey Davies).
The main force behind the TV series was Frank Muir who, as head of comedy at the new London ITV franchise LWT, was determined to get Richard Gordon’s Doctor saga on to the small-screen for the first time.
Although initially screened in black & white, the first series was actually made in color. It wasn’t until early 1970 when eight of the episodes were screened that they were finally seen in color for the first time. Doctor In The House ran for two seasons of 13 episodes apiece from July 12 1969 to July 3, 1970.
LWT blocked out the Sunday evening comedy slot for the whole of the spring and summer season in 1971 to screen 29 consecutive episodes of the sequel to Doctor In The House. The new series was to be known as Doctor At Large and saw the star of that series, Michael Upton (Barry Evans) progress from being a school leaver of 18 to a newly qualified MB (Bachelor of Medicine) of 24, out and about in search of work. After an unsteady start, Upton suffers an unsteady middle, and ends, equally unsteadily, back at St. Swithin’s as a junior registrar. Along the way he works for, among others, Dr. Maxwell (Arthur Lowe of “Dad’s Army” fame), a GP and a former major. Also adding to the merriment of this series was Richard O’Sullivan (pre-“Man About The House” days) as wimpy sycophant Lawrence Bingham who often was the butt of other doctor’s practical jokes; while, both Collier and Stuart Clark were both present, as well as Professor Loftus.
The 29 episodes were scripted by many of the writers from the first series including John Cleese, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden. The series debuted on February 28th and ran continuously until September 12, 1971.
The third in the Doctor series brought back together the characters of Duncan Waring, Paul Collier, Dick Stuart-Clark, Lawrence Bingham and Professor Loftus in Doctor In Charge. The only character that did not return was Michael Upton who, it was said, had fallen love and gone away. (In truth Barry Evans had gone on to his own sitcom Mind Your Language.) This series featured the usual mirth with the medics at St. Swithin’s, but with Upton’s character now departed, Robin Nedwell’s Duncan Waring moved center stage, forming with Collier and Stuart-Clark a sort of ‘Three Musketeers’ fraternity. But this didn’t stop the characters from continuing to lust after the nurses, be unpleasant to Bingham and generally keep out of Professor Loftus’ way.
Graham Chapman, Bill Oddie and Graeme Garden provided scripts once again for the new series, in addition to former cast member Jonathan Lynn, (Doctor In The House second season), who co-wrote 12 scripts with cast member George Layton. The series ran for two seasons consisting of a total of 43 episodes from April 9 1972 to December 29, 1973.
By the fourth series, the format started to show signs that it was wearing a bit thin. The premise of Doctor At Sea came about after Dick Stuart-Clark was dismissed from St. Swithin’s and Duncan Waring had registered his disapproval by quitting. Now both out of a job, they eventually enlisted a ship’s doctors on a cruise liner, the MS Begonia. But, when they board the ship to take on their new posts, they soon discover that the captain of the ship is the twin brother of their old hospital adversary, Loftus.
Doctor At Sea ran for one season of 13 episodes from April 21 to July 14, 1974.
With their sea-going adventures concluded, troublesome doctors Waring and Stuart-Clark returned to St. Swithin’s Hospital for more nurse-chasing in Doctor On The Go. This series featured more of the usual goings-on, however by the end of the series, Duncan Waring had met and fallen in love with nurse Kate Wright (Jacquie-Ann Carr) and were married in the series final episode. Amazingly enough the format stretched to a further 26 episodes spread over two years from April 27, 1975 to April 10, 1977.
For several years, the various Doctor series had been imported to Australia where they had proved wildly popular there. Much like several British sitcom’s before and after, (e.g. Father Dear Father, Love Thy Neighbor and Are You Being Served?) – some two years after Doctor On The Go had come to an end – when Australian TV executives had learned that LWT were no longer making the series, thirteen new episodes were made in 1979 by Australian television for screening in that country. This resulted in Doctor Down Under featured Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies reprising the characters of Duncan Waring and Dick Stuart-Clark now working in Australia at St. Barnabas Hospital.
While the series was quite popular down under, it wasn’t until early 1981, that the series made it to British TV screens.
Fourteen years after the final ITV series, and ten after the Australian, the Doctor series returned to British television screens in 1991 – this time courtesy of the BBC – reuniting four of the original cast members. (These were Robin Nedwell, Geoffrey Davies, George Layton and Ernest Clark.) A lot had obviously happened in the interim – Waring had become a pediatrician at St. Swithin’s and also had a Harley Street practice; and Stuart-Clark was the hospital’s Professor of Surgery. National Health under-funding and bed shortages were obviously issued to be tackled, and there was less emphasis on the female anatomy as the butt of all jokes.
The scripts were provided by George Layton (again returning as both actor and writer) and Bill Oddie. But the jokes were not as funny this time around and the comeback was not considered a resounding success. Only one series was made, and that was the end of a major sitcom success that had been on and off British television screens for 22 years.
Article by Bob Furnell
Bob is the co-editor of Chromakey