Novelist whose Doctor in the House books were turned into popular comedy films, starring Dirk Bogarde as Simon Sparrow

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Muriel Pavlow with Kenneth More, right, and Dirk Bogarde in Doctor in the House, 1954.

Dennis Barker Tuesday 15 August 2017

Gordon Ostlere, who has died aged 95, was a real-life doctor until 1952, when he left medical practice so that his alter ego, Richard Gordon, could pursue what he considered the more congenial occupation of writing. That year Doctor in the House, the first of Gordon’s breezily good-humoured series of stories with a medical setting, appeared, with a film adaptation following two years later.

The movie was a great success, making a star of Dirk Bogarde as Simon Sparrow, the hapless medical student with matinee idol good looks. He is the innocent who falls in with three already established students at St Swithin’s hospital (Kenneth More, Donald Sinden and Donald Houston), devoted to dating, drinking and sport. Authority came in the form of the fearsome chief surgeon, Sir Lancelot Spratt, realised with aplomb by James Robertson Justice. For Doctor at Sea (1955), Justice became the equally irascible captain of a cargo ship, and Bogarde as its medical officer was fortunate enough to have Brigitte Bardot on board as a passenger. Five more Doctor films followed, with Leslie Phillips starring in three of them as Dr Tony Burke.

Playing Simon Sparrow for BBC Radio’s Doctor in the House (1968) was Richard Briers, and the series has since resurfaced on Radio 4 Extra. Gordon’s cheerful refusal to be overawed by the world of healthcare was very much of its time, notably in its crass sexism – but it was also one component of a general postwar melting away of deference.

ITV revamped the format with versions of Doctor in the House (1969-70) and Doctor at Large (1971) starring Barry Evans, and with scriptwriters including Graeme Garden, Bill Oddie, Graham Chapman and John Cleese. Doctor in Charge (1972-73) and Doctor at Sea (1974) starred Robin Nedwell.

Gordon wrote much else, including a biographical novel, The Private Life of Florence Nightingale (1978), which suggested that the great pioneering nurse was a lesbian. If the aim was to create attention, he certainly succeeded. Some members of the medical and nursing professions were unimpressed, and the contretemps ended in Doctor-esque comedy when a press conference that Gordon had called at St Thomas’ hospital was cancelled by the indignant district nursing officer and the author had to hold it outside on the pavement.

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Richard Gordon was a qualified doctor, but left his medical life to become a full-time writer in 1952. Photograph:Rex

In The Private Life of Jack the Ripper (1980), he came to the conclusion that the Victorian killer and mutilator of prostitutes was not only a doctor, because of the surgical skill he displayed, but also an anaesthetist – as he himself had been at the start of his career. His reasoning was that because no one had heard any of the victims screaming, the Ripper must have used chloroform, which would require specific medical knowledge.

Gordon loved to let his mind roam all around the discipline he had started from: in the 1990s, his Alarming History of Medicine contained “amusing anecdotes from Hippocrates to heart transplants”, and other Alarming Histories covered famous and difficult patients, and sex. He also edited The Literary Companion to Medicine (1993).

Born in London, Gordon studied at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and St Bartholomew’s hospital medical school in London. He was an anaesthetist at St Bartholomew’s and at the Nuffield department of anaesthetics in Oxford, and with Roger Bryce-Smith wrote a textbook on the subject.

After a stint as assistant editor of the British Medical Journal, he took a job as a ship’s doctor on a freighter bound for Australia. In the Indian Ocean he realised that the crew were almost entirely healthy and likely to remain so, and that the only things he could do were drink gin and whisky with the ship’s engineer or use the purser’s typewriter to start writing about his medical experiences. The latter seemed to promise a longer life, so he arranged all the anecdotes he could remember around Simon Sparrow, and Doctor in the House and its successors sold in their millions.

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The poster for the 1954 film Doctor in the House. Photograph: Rex

In 1951 he married Mary Patten, a fellow anaesthetist whom he had met in Oxford. She supported him during his change of career, and they moved to Bromley, in south-east London.

Though he certainly wrote for popular consumption, Gordon did not seek publicity for himself. However, in 1974 he unknowingly received the ultimate accolade of the world of entertainment – being lured into a situation where he could be invited to appear on This Is Your Life, hosted at the time by Eamonn Andrews. Guests had been secretly assembled for the live show, but when Andrews approached him with his big red book to tell him, “This is your life”, Gordon did not, as intended, graciously go to meet his assembled family and friends in front of the cameras.

Instead, he snapped, “Oh balls!” and stalked off. Screens suddenly went blank and another programme was substituted. The only other person to have jibbed up till then was the footballer Danny Blanchflower. Unlike him, Gordon relented after persuasion from his wife, returning a few minutes later to record a programme that was shown later. His initial reluctance he put down to being “pathologically shy”.

He is survived by Mary and their two sons and two daughters.

- Richard Gordon (Gordon Stanley Ostlere), doctor and writer, born 15 September 1921; died 11 August 2017

- Dennis Barker died in 2015

Basil Dearden’s gay-blackmail drama, which helped to change the law on homosexuality in the UK, is back in UK cinemas in a restored digital print. On its first release in 1961, Sight & Sound contributor Terence Kelly praised its groundbreaking candour and a first-class performance by Dirk Bogarde.

Terence Kelly 22 July 2017

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from the Autumn 1961 issue of Sight & Sound

Victim (1961)

In a time-honoured tradition, Victim uses the framework of a thriller – and rather a good one – to investigate a social problem. The only innovation is the problem itself: for the first time, a British picture concerns itself largely with the lives and problems of homosexuals. Understandably its plot deals with blackmail; and the film unequivocally condemns the way this is encouraged by the present state of the law. An elaborate blackmail racket is described, leading to the death of a young man, until a barrister friend of the dead youth hunts down the blackmailers and gives evidence against them, at the cost of probably wrecking his own career. His investigations allow for a tour of the more respectable parts of the London homosexual underworld, with glimpses of the ways in which different men cope with or are destroyed by their abnormality.

UK 1961
Certificate PG 96 mins approx
Director Basil Dearden
Cast
Melville Farr Dirk Bogarde
Laura Farr Sylvia Syms
Calloway Dennis Price
Phip Nigel Stock
UK re-release date 21 July 2017 (2K digital version)
Distributor Park Circus
parkcircus.com

► Trailer

At first the scriptwriters (Janet Green and John McCormick, writers also of Sapphire) conceal their theme in a melodramatic haze, though only the most innocent will fail to penetrate it. The cranes and scaffolding of a gigantic building site, the restless camera, Peter McEnery’s nervous performance, build a feeling of suspense which, unfortunately, the picture fails to regain later when it most needs it.
Further, it relies overmuch on the improbable or the dubious. Thus, who is going to blackmail a young clerk, even a wages clerk, when he has richer, if wilier, game like a barrister at his mercy? And is suicide quite so easy in a police cell?

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Victim (1961)

Almost as unlikely are two of the four shock revelations which punctuate the last half-hour, gaining their impact by borrowing from the conventions of the detective novel rather than the screen thriller. The other two coups de theatre, with their cleverly contrived anti-climaxes, provide a big share of the film’s somewhat sparse humour. Its more abundant wit is for the most part sardonic or self-pitying, as the ‘victims’ comment on their condition and its unrewarding perils. The dialogue is slick and to the point, leading smoothly if obviously into didactic passages in which the pros and cons of the law are argued. Most of the obvious pitfalls are neatly circumvented, though at the cost of giving every character an over-explicit attitude to ‘the problem’.
Basil Dearden’s journalistic method works well in these circumstances. With reservations about Sylvia Syms’ portrayal of a judge’s daughter, one can give his casting and control of actors high praise. Among the relatively unfamiliar players, one notes Peter McEnery, Donald Churchill, and particularly Derren Nesbitt, giving a striking presence to the blackmailers’ courier; of the older supporting actors, Hilton Edwards, Charles Lloyd Pack and Norman Bird impress in varying homosexual roles. Dirk Bogarde offers one of his best performances as the barrister, wavering between guilt and resolution. But with this character the script inevitably compromises: he is homosexual only by inclination, never by act. Yet even such equivocation is a big step towards candour, and casting a star in such a part demands courage.

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Victim (1961)

The half-world through which the action moves is portrayed with deliberate tact: there is none of the actors’ camp talk or behaviour which would repel or bewilder most audiences; many an everyday British comedy contains far more risque jokes; physical relationships are never more than obliquely implied. In short, with the tragedies of death or ruined lives on one hand, and sadism and blackmail on the other, the emotional argument is heavily weighted.
It is easy to sneer that Aunt Edna will have no trouble in being high-mindedly tolerant here. But allowing for public opinion – even after the Wolfenden plea for tolerance, which is not mentioned here – and allowing for industry attitudes and for censorship, could Victim in fact have been more frank than it is? It is only fair to say that it could not. As far as those who made it are concerned, the challenge to their skill and integrity has, for the Britain of 1961, been successfully met. The tougher challenge will come when the case is put with less sympathetic characters in unflattering circumstances, and still presented convincingly.
'Victim' returns to cinemas 56 years after it's release.

The Daily Telegraph 21 July 2017 – ‘Victim’ returns to cinemas 56 years after it’s release. Tim Robey looks at its makers’ battle to get it past the censors

Sunday Times Review

Radio Choice Sunday Times

BBC3 July 9th 21:00 – 22:30

Sarah Wooley’s BBC3 radio play about the making of Victim, the first British film to address homosexuality seriously. BBC Three Drama of the week. Listen here…

Ground-breaking movie

Review by deano-10 (El Cerrito, CA)

It would be easy to view this movie as nothing more than a somewhat dated film. However, for it’s time, this movie was ground-breaking, for any number of reasons, including its superb acting. Dirk Bogarde and Sylvia Syms, in particular, were perfect in their parts. What many don’t realize is that this movie is credited with helping to decriminalize homosexuality in Britain. When “Victim” was released, it started a nationwide discussion about homosexuality and associated blackmail. At the time, approximately 90% of all blackmail cases involved homosexuals, and Bogarde’s character was a classic example of a blackmail “victim”. The point of the movie wasn’t that all homosexuals were victims, but they could only be victims so long as the law permitted it. The blackmail wasn’t merely because they were homosexual, but due to the harsh prison sentences a homosexual could (and often did) receive. How often does a movie get the opportunity to help create such a profound change in society?

The Vision - released by NETWORK on the 12th June - DVD Region 2

The Vision – released by NETWORK on the 12th June – DVD Region 2

Dirk Bogarde, Lee Remick and Eileen Atkins head an outstanding cast in this stunning drama from the creative team behind Shadowlands. Originally screened as part of BBC2’s acclaimed Screen Two strand and featuring an early TV role for Helena Bonham Carter, The Vision is a disturbing reflection of an era of televangelists, burgeoning satellite channels and ruthless media manipulation. Bogarde plays James Marriner, a faded, unhappily married former TV presenter who is persuaded to front the People Channel – a right-wing, evangelical satellite network poised to launch in Europe; determined to recruit “Gentle Jim” as a reassuringly familiar anchorman, the network’s steely, seductive boss Grace Gardner (Remick) proves hard to refuse. As the network’s first live transmission looms, Marriner, whose personal life is now under surveillance, has become deeply uneasy about its aims. But Gardner makes it clear that any attempt to alert viewers to her organisation’s true agenda will bring about a devastating retribution.
“http://networkonair.com/shop/2627-vision-the-5027626458645.html”
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The Blue Lamp, digitally restored, available 12th December 2016 on DVD and Blu-ray.

Arnold Wynand Schulkes

20th April 1930 – 18th February 2016

Arnie Schulkes

‘And so we say good bye to dear Arnie. No man could ever have shown greater loyalty.’

Brock

A young Canadian called Arnold Schulkes turned up in Cortina one day with his far-from-well wife on a far-from reliable Vespa scooter. They were, as he put it, ‘going putt-putt-putt’ through Europe, with the aim of seeing his relatives in Holland. As they stopped to watch the filming, one of the crew said, ‘Do you want to work? Would you like to be a stand-in?’ ‘What’s a stand-in?’ came the reply. Before he knew whether it was Cortina or Christmas he was at the top of a dam, dressed as Stanley Baker, and trying not to betray any hint of vertigo. People began to notice that there was a likeness to Dirk. Schulkes was an inch taller, ‘an inch all round bigger’, although slightly narrower in the shoulder. From the back the two men were almost indistinguishable. Dirk already had a regular stand-in, John Adderley, who had worked with him for some years; but Adderley wanted to join his family in America. Thanks to him, Schulkes managed to obtain a union ticket reasonably quickly and by the spring of 1959 he had the job. From that unpromising beginning Dirk and he developed a partnership which lasted for ten years and – by his reckoning – twenty-three films.

From ‘Dirk Bogarde': The authorised biography by John Coldstream

Aunay-sur-Odon

One of Dirk’s paintings was recently on display as part of the British Art Fair a the Royal College of Art. The piece, ‘Aunay-sur-Odon, 1944′ was being sold by Sim Fine Art.

The pen, ink and watercolour painting is unusual as Dirk decided to crop the image using a mount, which has only recently been removed to reveal the complete work.

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Chris Breward 1

Leading cultural historian Professor Christopher Breward recently gave a lecture at Falmouth University, titled Dirk Bogarde: From Doctor to Decadent, focussing on the nature of Dirk’s onscreen costume throughout his career.

A recording of the lecture is now hosted on the site, along with the full text of the original article. It can be found in the Style Icon section here

The headline is a quote from Dirk, speaking to James Fox at the Connaught, the old friends that Dirk refers to are Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful.

Cast a Dark Shadow

Dirk stars alongside Margaret Lockwood in this 1955 movie, which has finally been released on DVD, by Simply Media.

Find out more about the film in the filmography.

Buy the DVD.

Dirk in Uniform

On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, Dirk Bogarde’s claim to have seen that ‘hell on earth’ at first hand is reassessed by his official biographer, John Coldstream.

Read more
hunted-1952-001-dirk-bogarde-with-boy-in-his-arms

The BFI have compiled a list of 10 essential Dirk Bogarde films.

Darling

Darling (1965)


Find out more about the film in the filmography.

Buy the Blu-ray (UK).