Another chance to see… On the Buses 

25 November 2021 tbs.pm/73636


London Weekend

London Weekend, 1969-1973

The term “Classic” seems to be somewhat overstretched these days. A word that was once used to describe something that was outstanding in its field or a cut above the others in its genre appears now to refer to anything that’s old or back catalogue, especially when it comes to old TV shows. Digital channel re-runs of old game shows or soaps being branded as Classic Who Wants To Be A Millionaire or Classic Coronation Street, the “Classic” tag now merely indicating that they’re not the current run. On Friday 28 February 1969 this “Classic” sitcom made its first outing and found itself being loved and loathed in almost equal measures. The show owes its existence to an air of near desperation at the TV company who produced it.

Things were looking pretty grim and almost terminal for London Weekend Television at the start of 1969. They were the new kids on the ITV block at weekends having replaced the populist ATV London in the summer of 1968, winning their franchise on a promise to bring a bit of serious programming and high culture to ITV. Viewers accustomed to Sunday Night At The London Palladium, The Arthur Haynes Show and Danger Man were now being treated to Saturday Specials such as Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale and an in-depth profile of the works of Jacques Brel. As viewers deserted ITV en masse for BBC-1’s weekend offerings, so the various ITV regional companies deserted LWT’s output. Not only were vanishing audiences failing to attract advertisers, they were failing to generate sales of programmes to the other stations and for a TV company only able to sell its wares from Friday evenings to Sunday closedown, the situation was dire.

Enter Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe, comedy writers with previous successes at the BBC with The Rag Trade and Meet The Wife. The BBC, however, rejected their next idea, not seeing much comedy potential in a bus depot as a setting. Undaunted, the duo approached Frank Muir, head of light entertainment at London Weekend who in desperation were now willing to take a more populist approach.

Having commissioned Please Sir!, one of the first LWT shows to be fully embraced by the ITV network at the end of 1968, Muir was given the go-ahead to take the Chesney-Wolfe project. The show would centre on the misadventures of bus driver Stan Butler (played by Reg Varney) and his conductor Jack Harper (Bob Grant) while working the number 11 bus between the bus depot and the Cemetery Gates under the ever watchful eye of their Inspector Cyril Blake, brilliantly overplayed (in my opinion) by Stephen Lewis, who inadvertently made ‘Blakey’ one of the best comedy characters of all time.

 

 

Chesney and Wolfe took on the BBC’s concerns about the limitations of a bus depot and extended the storylines to include Stan’s home and family, his plain and sexually frustrated sister Olive (Anna Karen) with her aloof husband from hell Arthur (Michael Robbins) and Mum, played in the first series by Cicely Courtneidge and succeeded by Doris Hare for the rest of the show’s run. This set the show apart from other sit-coms of the time in having two sets of cast and characters in two different settings, effectively two sitcoms for the price of one. Stories could centre either on Stan’s domestic life or his work life, but both settings would feature and interact in each episode.

Naturally a show centred on the goings-on at a bus depot requires buses, both static in the depot and in filmed sequences out on the streets. LWT approached London Transport, not only to use their vehicles but also their brand, having Stan as an employee at a fictional LT depot somewhere in East London. Despite being the obvious choice and having featured in other film and TV outings, London Transport were nervous of this one, they were an organisation of high standards and didn’t want them tarnished, though maybe possibly knowing LWT’s track record they didn’t want any association with something that was a potential failure.

The producers then approached Eastern National, a territorial bus company serving Essex and one of the few ‘outsiders’ allowed operations into London with a route from Southend terminating at a depot in Wood Green, which would become the setting for many of the outdoor scenes. Eastern National obligingly decorated one of their buses, a double-deck Bristol Lodekka FLF with the fictitious company fleet-name of LUXTON AND DISTRICT and made it available to LWT not only for the outdoor street scenes, but also to place on the depot interior set in the studio. Reg Varney was trained to drive the bus for the outdoor scenes while the movement of the bus in the studio ‘depot’ merely involved panning and zooming the camera along the side of the vehicle.

While the show was an instant hit (and a virtual lifesaver for LWT) it wasn’t until the third series in 1970 and the first to be made in colour that it really hit its stride and possibly reached its peak, featuring those episodes that are most fondly remembered among its fan base. Its popularity spawned no less than three spin-off feature films, the first of which outsold the 1971 Bond offering at the box office (although watching Diamonds Are Forever, it’s easy to see why). I have to say that for me the attraction was always the buses, moving pictures of those Eastern National Lodekkas out on the streets of Wood Green were pure eye candy. But as I mentioned earlier, it was loathed by almost as many as those who loved it, possibly for its thoroughly unashamed working class humour, or possibly for its Carry On… approach to sex in comedy, the premise of two blokes clearly in their forties pursuing girls nearly half their age in prime time comedy being unthinkable now.

It was very disposable humour, designed for the viewer to disengage their brain and be entertained for twenty-four minutes after a week at work, and for a TV network to deliver a huge audience to the next programme in those pre-remote control days, thus securing them for the evening. It was never intended to be the aforementioned “Classic” comedy or preserved as box-set material, the episodes were produced with two showings in mind and that would be it. But strangely for a show that really is of its time, thanks to those box sets and constant re-runs on ITV3, this politically incorrect show is picking up new young fans, possibly intrigued at seeing something going out full guns blazing for cheap laughs in a non-politically correct manner that simply couldn’t happen today. But I suppose if it can pick up a new audience fifty years on then that’s how it slips in as “Classic” comedy. I suspect that if ITV3 is still there in ten years time, On The Buses will be there too.

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6 responses to this article

David Heathcote 25 November 2021 at 5:29 pm

Excellent account – so evocative! Reg Varney had previously played Reg Turner in BBC’s “The Rag Trade” from 1961 to 1963, also scripted by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney. So Varney was a “known asset”.

Ian Fryer 25 November 2021 at 6:24 pm

Can I address the point about the first On the Buses film taking more than Diamonds Are Forever? It should be pointed out that the On the Buses film was released in early August and the Bond picture at the end of December. The latter therefore took most of its money in 1972 so the oft-quoted comparison, while true on the surface, is somewhat unfair on 007.

Steven Oliver 25 November 2021 at 11:34 pm

Reg was indeed trained to drive the buses, but he wasn’t insured. Any “on the road” driving scenes were done by Eastern National drivers.

Paul Mason 28 November 2021 at 12:13 pm

In the film’s some end of life Bristol KSW5Gs were used with Town and District logos (On The Buses). For Holiday On The Buses, filmed in Pontins, Prestatyn North Wales a Crosville Bristol Lodekka LD6G open top was used and Safari (?) On The Buses a Leyland Atlantean was used. Other notable buses used were a Bedford VAM coach and OLD 666, one of a group of RT/RTL/RTW buses built in 1954. These buses were OLD when new! This was a former London CC. mark

As for the regular cast only Anna Karen remains sadly.
The final OTB series was one where Reg Varney didnt take part and “Blakey” lodged with the Butler’s but this version was not popularwith viewers and this bus reached its terminus.
Two spin offs to mention were Don’t Drink The Water in which Blakey and his sister (Pat Coombs) retire to Spain and Down The Gate in which Reg Varney was a Billingsgate fishmarket porter. He lived with his elderly mother, sister and bickering husband. Like deja vu all over again it ran for one series.
I too have an interest in buses but not seeing the same one or two weekly.

Paul Mason 28 November 2021 at 12:35 pm

CORRECTION . The three film sequels were ON THE BUSES, MUTINY OTB (not Safari) and HOLIDAY OTB.There were a number of films based on TV sitcoms in the first half of the 1970s. Some worked like On The Buses , and others didn’t Man About The House being a stinker!

DG 1 December 2021 at 10:18 pm

Preferred Cicely Courtneige – the original “mum” – very scatty and didn’t over act like Doris Hare.

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