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Doctor Knock (1966)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Doctor Knock (1966)
BBC2, tx. 2/1/1966
90 minutes, black & white
DirectorHerbert Wise
ProducerCedric Messina
Author of Original WorkJules Romains
TranslatorHarley Granville-Barker

Cast: Mavis Villiers (Madame Parpalaid); Leonard Rossiter (Dr Knock); John Le Mesurier (Dr Parpalaid); Jimmy Gardner (Jean); James Grout (town crier)

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Doctor Knock, newly arrived in a small country town, uses his considerable skills to the benefit of his medical practice - but not necessarily his patients...

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Before they carved out comedy niches in successful sitcoms, John Le Mesurier and Leonard Rossiter co-starred as a pair of doctors with opposing ideas on medicine in this sophisticated satire, shown as part of the anthology drama series Theatre 625.

Using Harley Granville-Barker's popular translation of Jules Romains' play, the BBC made a version for schools in 1961 before this interpretation in 1966. The role of Doctor Knock was originally popularised in the 1920s by actor Louis Jouvet, who featured in two French film adaptations of the story as well numerous stage versions. Though rarely adapted for the screen in recent decades, the play remains an astute observation of the corrosive relationship between medicine and commerce.

When country doctor Parpalaid leases his practice to the mysterious Doctor Knock, he believes he has made a good deal from the quiet business of attending to a small town. Knock, however plans to hugely expand the practice, using 'modern techniques' and sheer charisma to convince the residents that they require an abundance of expensive care. Knock is a charlatan but a consummate performer, and his genius is to inspire fear and create doubt in patients by suggesting that minor complaints have serious causes. Rossiter's performance is brilliantly understated, with every raised eyebrow becoming an inducement to hypochondria. A contemporary review described him as using "a voice as bland and soothing as glycerine and honey."

Herbert Wise, a veteran of television plays who would go on to direct I, Claudius (BBC, 1976), uses gentle pans to suggest the slow pace of village life and tight close ups that emphasise the alarm and discomfort of prospective patients, as well as Knock's menace and calculation . Knock's oppressive personality is especially evident in a claustrophobic scene in Parpalaid's old-fashioned car, which acts as a metaphor for his traditional style of medicine. Prolific designer Eileen Diss creates a suitably clinical feel in the doctor's surgery and Knock's employment of medical illustrations is reflected in the striking title sequence and in the end credits.

By exploiting his patients' hunger for the latest modern methods, Doctor Knock is able to send almost an entire town to bed and Rossiter's near-deranged performance in the penultimate scene illuminates the original play's alternative title, 'The Triumph of Medicine'.

Lisa Kerrigan

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Video Clips
1. 'Quite, quite American' (3:07)
2. 'Does it tickle or does it scratch?' (2:45)
3. 'Things have changed around here' (3:49)
Le Mesurier, John (1912-1983)
Messina, Cedric (1920-1993)
Rossiter, Leonard (1926-1984)
Rediscovered TV Drama