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 Trade, chirpy, 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 Pit. On 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…