On the Buses at 50

February 28, 2019

Fifty years ago today, the gates of the Luxton and District Motor Traction Company were rolled back for the first time to admit, onto an unsuspecting world, the Number 11, a green and cream double decker bus crewed by driver Stan Butler and conductor Jack Harper. Their destination, that of all mortals: the Cemetery Gates.

Such grim fatalism was hardly typical of what lay in store for viewers: with its bawdy, comic postcard humour and resolutely working-class outlook, On The Buses was destined to become one of the most popular British comedy series of its era, if not all time. You can form your own opinions as to what that tells us about popular taste. A bag of chips may not be the most imaginative or nutritious choice of meal, but it’ll never go out of fashion. And that’s exactly what On the Buses offered the viewing public of 1969 – occasionally stodgy, slightly overcooked and a bit too salty in places, but guaranteed to please. At its peak, after it had moved to its prime position of 7.25 on Sunday evenings, it regularly featured in the JICTAR TV ratings top ten.

Its beginnings were relatively humble – a mere seven episodes, in black and white; but head of comedy at London Weekend Television Frank Muir must have known from the start that his latest commission would be a hit with viewers. The scripts came from the well-established writing team of Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, who had scored an earlier populist hit with sweat-shop sitcom The Rag Trade for the BBC. Indeed, the BBC had been offered Buses but passed, hence the move to the commercial channel. There were obvious logistical problems inherent in staging a sitcom set in a bus garage, not the least of which was how to get a double decker bus into a TV studio, and such concerns may have served to deter the BBC if they weren’t already put off by the relentlessly working-class mentality of the scripts.

London Weekend Television had already scored a sitcom hit with John Esmonde and Bob Larbey’s Please Sir!and On the Buses would cement their reputation for such populist fare, in complete contrast to the station’s lofty aspirations at its inception in 1968. The designers having successfully solved the problem of full-sized buses in a TV studio, the stage was set for a production that would rely principally on VT recording, augmented by minimal filmed inserts.

The cast gelled on screen from the first episode, with everyone seemingly comfortably in character from the outset. At the wheel, quite literally, of Wolfe and Chesney’s new comedy vehicle was Reg Varney, reprising the same character type he had played in The Rag Tradechirpy, chipper but eternally hassled. Varney had been a virtual unknown before The Rag Trade, but by 1967 his star status saw him chosen to launch the innovative new cash dispenser at his local branch of Barclays Bank. The other half of the driver/conductor double act came in the form of Bob Grant, a stage actor who had been seen in minor roles on television since 1959’s Quatermass and the PitOn the Buses was his first and, ultimately, only starring role in what would prove to be a frustrating and erratic acting career. As ‘mum’, Cicely Courtneige shared star billing on the opening titles with Reg Varney, but would last only six episodes in the role, before the arrival of movie veteran Doris Hare who immediately made the part her own. Actress Anna Karen, a relative newcomer to television, memorably played Stan’s married sister Olive, alongside established character performer Michael Robbins as her eternally cynical husband Arthur, whose abrasive exterior contrasted his shortcomings in other departments of their married life.

As if to prove the proverbial saying about buses – ‘there’ll be another one along in a minute’ – the short first series was followed within weeks by six more episodes, making a total of 13, then the standard length for a single series. The second batch of episodes introduced a cartoon title sequence which, with minor revisions (principally in order to replace a poor likeness of Reg Varney) would endure until the end of series 6.

There was more to the new comic premise than just public transport. On the Buses was, at heart, a domestic sitcom, with as much time spent in the Butler household as there was back at the depot: most episodes tended to divide the ‘action’ (if you could call it that) between these two key locations. Chez Butler, there would invariably be a contretemps around the breakfast table, whilst at the depot, there was fun to be had at the expense of Stan and Jack’s eternal nemesis Inspector Blake (Stephen Lewis), he of the Hitler moustache and facial contortions, whose refrain “I ‘ate you Butler” would become the stock-in-trade of a generation of playground impressionists. When not busy Blakey-baiting, Stan and Jack’s other recreational activities invariably revolved around the pursuit of female ‘clippies’, in scenarios predating the concept, if not the reality, of sexual harassment…

These then, were the limits and scope of On the Buses; and within that relatively rigid format, a number of stock situations quickly developed, which would be pursued with endless variations over the life of the series: Stan is under pressure from the family to accomplish some piece of DIY, which is achieved with recourse to pilfered supplies from the depot… Stan is thwarted in his attempts to bring his latest girlfriend back to the house… Blakey is frustrated in his endeavours to force Stan and Jack to comply with some new piece of company policy… and so it went on. From such basic materials, On The Buses managed to clock up an impressive 74 episodes over the course of five years, and despite the repetition, and the constant cheap laughs, viewers flocked to it in droves.

Contrasting the on-screen chemistry between the players, the humour in On the Buses could often be cruel. Cheap personal insults such as Arthur routinely referring to his own wife as a ‘stupid great lump’ were considered fair game by the writers as long as they could guarantee a laugh, which invariably they did. Even Stan’s supposed best mate Jack would think nothing of double-crossing him when they found themselves vying for the affections of the same girl. Viewers evidently didn’t care a jot for such niceties, and by 1971, On the Buses had acquired the status of a national institution. A feature film was released, and even the TV Times chipped in with a glossy magazine special (curiously, the only item of merchandise that On the Buses generated during its lifetime). The series’ popularity with younger viewers was acknowledged when Look-In magazine began a strip cartoon version of Stan and Jack’s adventures, superbly illustrated in colour by Harry North, but with scripts that were more melodrama than comedy.

By 1973, On The Buses felt as if it had been on television forever: the series had entered its fifth year on air, and there had been two feature film spin-offs, with a third in the offing. But by now, the wheels were slowly coming off the Number Eleven. With commitments to producing and writing the film spin-offs, Wolfe and Chesney had taken a step back from their TV work, and scripts were now coming in from other hands, including those of Bob Grant and Stephen Lewis. The unlikely alliance of Blakey and Jack began to dominate as the series drew towards its inevitable conclusion, and a sharp decline in quality was soon apparent. Michael Robbins was absent for the final series, busy appearing in Time and Time Again at London’s Comedy Theatre, which left a gap in the Butler household that would widen still further when Stan himself departed mid-series. If the idea of keeping a sitcom on air without its main character seems ill-conceived, bear in mind that LWT had done the same thing two years earlier when Form 5C and their teacher Bernard Hedges left the highly successful Please Sir! Sadly, the law of diminishing returns applied in both cases…

With Stan gone, desperate measures were required in order to shore up the format, and in an attempt to keep the domestic side of the series afloat, Inspector Blake now moved in as the Butlers’ lodger. With Jack already established as a near neighbour, the storylines began to move further and further away from the bus depot, and the last to air, Gardening Time, seemed to have abandoned the series’ premise altogether, with its tale of Jack and Blakey’s competitive horticultural endeavours. It was almost as if Grant and Lewis were cranking out the scripts simply to keep themselves in work.

The final outing for the characters – all present and correct, and with the welcome addition of Wilfrid Brambell – came at the end of 1973 with the feature film Holiday On the Buses. Like its predecessors, this was a Carry On-style confection, shot extensively on location, with holiday camp exteriors provided by Pontins Prestatyn. The film was still showing theatrically during the summer of 1974, but on the small screen, Luxton and District had run their last service…

Typecasting has been the cause of many an actor’s thwarted ambitions, and the extended cast of On the Buses were no exception. Stephen Lewis seemed happy enough to reprise his Inspector Blake character, now an ex-pat in retirement, in Wolfe & Chesney’s spin-off Don’t Drink the Water, while Reg Varney endeavoured to recast himself in the mould of an all-round entertainer. Varney’s only notable post-buses appearances came in the downbeat movie The Best Pair of Legs in the Business, and the short-lived Down the Gate, a sitcom with the setting of Billingsgate fish market. Michael Robbins returned to his pre-OTB career of minor appearances on the big and small screens, while Doris Hare, whose film CV stretched back to the 1930s, remained in demand for the rest of her working life. 

Of all the OTB regulars, it was Bob Grant who faced the most serious challenges following the demise of the series that had made him a star. A potential lead in a new sitcom got no further than a single pilot episode, in which his character was virtually indistinguishable from Jack Harper, having merely swapped his conductor’s uniform for that of a milkman. Work dwindled, and Grant struggled for years with depression and bipolar disorder, returning to the public eye briefly via the national news in the wake of his disappearance from home in 1987. After several failed suicide attempts, he finally took his own life in 2003 at the age of 71.

The mid-70s saw On the Buses enter a period of relative obscurity, with only occasional outings on television for the three feature films, and hardly a glimpse of the episodes themselves, many of which had been shown only once. It wasn’t until the growth of satellite broadcasting in the 1990s, with its opportunities for vintage repeats, that On the Buses began to show signs of making a comeback, and the broadcaster Granada Plus soon embarked on a complete re-run. Surprisingly, this was only the second time on air for many of the episodes, some of which had remained unseen since 1969. For anyone with a mind to do so, these broadcasts, with multiple episodes stripped throughout the week, provided the chance to see the series through from inception to dissolution in just a couple of months.

In 2006, the complete series finally became available for purchase on DVD from Network, and we can happily attest to its continuing status as a best-seller: proof, if it were needed, of the enduring appeal of two chirpy cockneys in charge of a double decker bus. 

Room for one more on top? ‘Old very tightly, please…

On the Buses: The Complete Series is available at the reduced price of £18 until 3pm, Tuesday 5th March.

Martin Cater



Comments:10

  1. Paul G. Reply
    19/02/28

    Pffft, no pic of Olive and Arthur….disgraceful.

  2. Kingsley Reply
    19/02/28

    Any chance the three films will be released on Blu-ray ?

  3. Steve Reply
    19/02/28

    A very good write up to celebrate 50 years of the series. What looked a very simple comedy/sitcom had an all round appeal to men women and children. The formula although on the face of it looked simple, was in fact quite clever in its concept from the writers of Ronnie Wolfe and Chesney, And here we are enjoying the show with a whole new generation of fans, and long may it continue as I have been running the fan club for the last 20 years.
    DING DING!

  4. Michael Roche Reply
    19/02/28

    Dvds that you can always delve into. Cheers you up no end.

  5. Richard G Reply
    19/02/28

    Time for Blu ray restoration of the three movies?

  6. William Chivers Reply
    19/02/28

    Dear All (of Network Distributing Ltd)

    It’s actually quite surprising that this hilariously funny and popular classic LWT sitcom first aired on British TV Screens exactly 50 Years ago this very year.

    I’ve already got all 74 episodes of OTB by the way …. Many Happy Returns to this fan-favourite sitcom classic …. such as disappointing pity that most of the cast, let alone the late great writers of OTB are no longer with us.

    Anyway, Hope to here back from you lot of Network Distributing all-round … you lot sure do successful at releasing so many classic sitcoms onto DVD, especially from the expansively large archives put-together

    Yours Sincerely
    William Chivers
    (from Morley, West Yorkshire)
    (also fellow fan of classic comedy/sitcom/light entertainment)
    PS.
    Here’s to the next 50 years and future generations to discovery this very funny classic sitcom.

  7. Kenneth Michael Henderson Reply
    19/02/28

    The VHS of the were sold in Australia and the TV series on DVD. The series did well here, the Cicely Courtneidge being in Black and White. I got used to Doris Hare very quickly as Mum. I think Varney learnt to skid the bus at the old Cricklewood gas works whose ground surface was ideal for this training.
    Varney had been in Australia early 1960s for a series set in a pub called The Rose and Crown. This c50mins program was made for the old 0-10 Network and produced in the Melbourne studios on VTR. The premise was a crowded pub with tables and chairs and Varney played old songs and people sang ala British pubs of old. It screened Saturday nights from 6.30pm. Knowing the network’s policies I doubt even 5mins exists of this show(no home video then) I watched every week. It was then owned by the airline who Murdoch tookover and he had to get rid of the station and later the airline closed. Long story.
    A friend, probably long gone now, loved British comedy etc and had taped Holiday on the Buses off TV and hired a copy form the Video Shop. He said that there were scenes in each tape not in the other and he said he made a new tape thru his other machine adding in sequences from these copies. Odd and I never saw the results which will also have gone to God.
    Doris Hare was born in Wales and got to 95 and not really noted in films. Stage and later TV was her stock in trade. “Olive” has been a stripper they say.
    Michael Robbins was a staunch Catholic and died a long time ago now. He did a one off BBC(I am sure) play which was set in 1929 era and the main song used was Bobby Howes 1928 recording of I’m A One Man Girl from the London cast of Mr Cinders(it was filmed 1934 with Clifford Mollison) with Howes and Binnie Hale. I saw this TV play way back then on national TV one Saturday night and not heard of it since. Wonder if it still exists?

  8. Steve Sullivan Reply
    19/03/01

    Martin Cater’s feature for the 50th anniversary of On the Buses (OTB) is an interesting read of the series which coincidentally I have just finished re-playing in toto from Network’s full series release of 2006 (including the 70s LWT ident preceding many of the episodes for completists such as yours truly). It gives a lovely warm nostalgic feeling when recapturing the tangible atmosphere that LWT managed to create in this series, in no small part by the actors/actresses themselves. The BBC would never have managed to create the same loveable, cheeky (dare I say ‘working class’) atmosphere, being staid and rigid in approach(Dad’s Army being of similar longevity). Yes, the busmens’ banter and fun with the girls was all part of the comedy and fun when freedom of expression prevailed before it was banned by the PC brigade. Bring it all back!
    I had not known about Bob Grant’s depression and finally suicide which was so sad to read. I don’t know whether any of the cast (or writers) are still with us but hope they are. It would be interesting for their recorded memories of the making of this landmark and highly popular series which touched viewers hearts. I wish we could make comedies like that today which could be the antidote to today’s ‘comedies’. Other view will no doubt exist.
    But, thanks to that wonderful team at Network, I am free to play any episode of this series any time of the day or night, from the DVD boxed set. I wonder whether technology will one day enable us to upgrade 625 line video to true HD?

  9. Dave Jones Reply
    19/03/07

    Excellent article, but there’s a slight error. The TV Times special was not the only piece of OTB merchandise. Denys Fisher produced a board game in 1973.

  10. Jeremy Clarke Reply
    19/03/09

    An interesting aside – there was one piece of “On The Buses” merchandise I owned and loved as a child : the “on the buses” board game. Having been born in 1969 I wash a touch too young for the sitcom so knew the show through the films which were anticipated as bank holiday treats for which I was allowed to stay up for (no mention of child cruelty to you purists – this 7 year old was utterly charmed by them) . The board game worked as a unique game as well as keeping the spirit of the show . Plastic buses were sent round bus routes and you had to fill them with as many plastic passengers as you could pick up before returning to face Blakey at the depot . In the “community chest” style cards you picked up there was one that said “You’ve been Blakey-Ed” with a wonderful Kitchener style portrait of Stephen Lewis (I presumed you missed a turn ! ) but a joyful game and thanks to Network I was able to finally get back to the source material !

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