Vikas Dattain his weekly column Book-Shelf
Involving a long and gruelling stint of study to qualify and everyday exposure to human pain and suffering, the practice of medicine is perhaps one of the last you could expect to serve as a base for comedy. But it is the saving grace of humanity that it too has people capable of seeing – and sharing – the funny side of their life. Like this doctor who found greater fame with his uproariously comic series of books centred on his profession.
Though doctors too have left a mark on literature – Anton Chekhov, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mikhail Bulgakov, A.J. Cronin, Khaled “The Kite Runner” Hosseini, W. Somerset Maugham to name some – comedy has not been common.
Making up the deficiency is Richard Gordon (actually Dr Gordon Ostlere (1921-), with his long-running “Doctor” series and their array of film, stage, TV and radio adaptions. (His only companion in the genre is possibly H. Richard Hornberger or “Richard Hooker” (1924-1997) of “M*A*S*H: A Novel About Three Army Doctors” (1968), also adapted for film and TV, and its two sequels.
Gordon studied at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, founded in 1123 and the oldest to be working at its original site – Smithfield in Central London. (More commonly known as Barts, it is already immortal in literature, as the venue for the first meeting of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, whose alma mater it is) and then worked there as an anaesthetist. He did a stint as a ship’s surgeon, as an assistant editor of the British Medical Journal and author of medical textbooks, before leaving practice in 1952 to become a full-time writer.
His series breaks new ground for the celebrated British style of humour, marked by a distinct undercurrent of satire and sarcasm, colourful and unusual descriptions, similes and metaphors, sharp wit with deadpan delivery, bolstered by the English language’s extraordinary capabilities for comedy – as exemplified by the works of P.G. Wodehouse.
But unlike Wodehouse, his settings are not only stately country mansions or clubs for the idle rich, but medical colleges (the fictional St. Swithins) and practices in the metropolis and suburbs and even a merchant vessel in the South Atlantic, though they are peopled with a similar cast of eccentric and idiosyncratic characters – in Gordon’s case, pompous senior specialists, cheeky or unsure junior doctors, authoritarian nurses, difficult and uptight patients and a range of other singular but entertaining participants.
The series begins with “Doctor in the House” (1952), which sees Gordon joining St.Swithins, making friends with the foppish Gaston Grimsdyke and Tony Benskin (who would go on to become recurring characters, along with tutors, the Dean (Dr.Lionel Loftus) and Sir Lancelot Spratt – who is said to retire and later die in this work but returns in subsequent installments, even starring in quite a few of them.
This is uproariously funny (take the scene where an obstetrics examinee spectacularly muffs his practical of child delivery, slipping and sending the whole papier mache model of mother and child and his instruments flying in all directions. An examiner looks at him sourly, picks up a forceps and hands it to him. “Hit the father on the head with it and you’ll have killed the whole family”.)
“Doctor at Sea” (1953) sees a bored Gordon signing on for spell as a ship’s doctor in a tale of nautical diseases and other marine misadventures, “Doctor at Large” (1955), “Doctor in Love” (1957) and “Doctor and Son” (1959) about his first years in the profession and changes in his personal life (though in the last, Gordon is now Simon Sparrow, while Grimsdyke and Sir Lancelot reappear).
Till here, the books were semi-autobiographical, but the subsequent ones are more of inventions, sometimes verging on high farce, and with more innuendo.
“Doctor in Clover” (1960), “Doctor in The Swim” (1961) and “Doctor on Toast” (1961) are various escapades of Grimsdyke, “The Summer of Sir Lancelot” (1965), “Love and Sir Lancelot” (1965) and “Doctor on the Boil” (1970) star the testy old specialist, “Doctor on the Brain” (1972) sees the Dean and Sir Lancelot writing each other’s obituaries, “Doctor in the Nude” (1973) about a major snafu ahead of the Queen’s visit, and “Doctor on the Job” (1976) about a strike in the hospital. “Doctor in the Nest” (1979) and “The Last of Sir Lancelot” (1999) are some of his struggles with the NHS and to keep the hospital from closing.
Despite their names, “Doctor’s Daughters” (1981), “Doctor on the Ball” (1985) and “Doctor in the Soup” (1986) are not part of this canon.
Chronicling the changing face of medical education and practice across the second half of the 20th century, Gordon also proves that laughter is the best medicine!