Thursday, 9 April 2015

Carry On Loving Joan Hickson

Known throughout the world as the definitive Miss Marple on television, Joan Hickson is quite simply one of the greatest character actresses Britain has ever produced.

For most people she is mainly known for her starring role in the BBC's superlative adaptations of Agatha Christie's novels. However star status arrived very late in a long, long career for Joan Hickson. Making her first film appearance in 1934 and her last in 1993 it was a screen career spanning seven remarkable decades. 

Being a blog about all things Carry On I want to take some time to focus on Joan's supporting roles in five films in our favourite comedy franchise. Joan made her first foray into Carry On in late 1958 when she took on the role of Sister to Hattie Jacques' Matron in Carry On Nurse. Nurse is one of my all time favourite Carry On films and Joan Hickson is given her biggest role in the series here. She is superb as the strict hospital sister, underling to Hattie and superior to the likes of Shirley Eaton, Susan Stephen and Joan Sims. The two Joan's work terrifically well together with Sister constantly disappointed with Nurse Dawson's comedy cock ups. 
Joan Hickson returned to the series for the fourth film, Carry On Constable. Filmed at the end of 1959, Joan's role is more of a cameo, featuring in scenes near the beginning and towards the end of the picture. Joan plays a frightfully posh, frightfully drunk society lady by the name of Mrs May. We first meet her when Joan Sims' eager Policewoman Passworthy brings Mrs May in on a charge of drunk and disorderly. Escorting her to the cells, the two women come across new recruits Leslie Phillips and Kenneth Connor leading to much hilarity. The next morning the two Joan's are also treated to the delightful sight of Phillips, Connor, Hawtrey and Williams as they flee freezing cold showers. 

Carry On Regardless, the next film in the series, sees Joan Hickson pop up in another cameo, this time back in the hospital wards. When the boss of Helping Hands (one Sidney James) fills in for a rich patient in an NHS waiting room, Joan's Matron mistakes Sid for the wealthy old man of industry. Cue much misunderstanding as Sid causes havoc amid some rather underdressed nursing staff. This role saw a role reversal from Nurse with Joan acting as Matron and Hattie Jacques appearing briefly as Sister. 

There was then a gap of several years before we would see Joan Hickson back filming with the Carry On Team. However her next appearance was well worth waiting for. In 1970, and now in colour, Joan featured in a saucy seventies update of the Carry On Regardless theme - Carry On Loving. Terry Scott, having signed up to The Wedded Bliss Marriage Agency co-onwed by Sid James and Hattie Jacques, embarks on a date with a young lady called Jenny Grubb (Imogen Hassall). What follows is a perfect example of classic stage farce. Terry's date turns out to be not only with Jenny, but also with her mother (Hickson) and about a dozen other mainly silent family members. It is a priceless scene with Terry overacting all over the place, crashing into furniture, causing multiple misunderstandings, indulging in some ripe innuendo and finally coming a cropper with the cake trolley. Joan is perfect as the very staid Victorian mother and her disapproval at Terry's actions is very funny to watch.

That may well have been Joan's last appearance in the Carry On films. Renee Houston, a well-known Scottish music hall star and actress who had appeared in Carry On Cabby, Spying and At Your Convenience was due to play Mrs Dukes in Carry On Girls, released in 1973. Unfortunately Houston's health took a turn for the worse and Joan Hickson was hastily cast in the role. Carry On Girls is one of my least favourite Carry On films, but Joan along with June Whitfield and Patsy Rowlands provide many of the highlights. Mrs Dukes is an elderly lady residing in Joan Sims' hotel in Fircombe, a dowdy old seaside resort soon to host a beauty contest, the brain child of Sid James' Councillor FIddler. 

Joan Hickson is priceless as Mrs Dukes, playing the dotty old dear to perfection. Her entire performance is centred around a missing pair of red flannel knickers that have gone missing. As she said "I don't feel safe walking around without any". Quite. Said knickers are soon discovered hanging from the top of a flagpole on the prom, thanks to Peter Butterworth's randy old Admiral.

In many ways Joan Hickson's span of performances show how much the Carry On films changed over the years. From the black and white 1950s coy innocence of Nurse and Constable to the near the knuckle exploits of Barbara Windsor and Margaret Nolan in Girls, this transformation not only shows how much the Carry Ons changed, but also how much British culture had evolved during the Carry Ons' lifespan. 

Whatever the material given to her, Joan Hickson was a superb actress, making the most from each of these performances. She is always a highlight whenever she appears on screen in a Carry On and I will long treasure her performances. 

So what was your favourite of Joan Hickson's Carry On film appearances? What other films or television shows did you enjoy seeing her in? Get in touch in the usual ways: please do comment here on the blog, on Twitter @CarryOnJoan and also on Facebook

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