On The Buses was about a jack-the-lad bus driver and his equally chirpy conductor repeatedly pulled the wool over the eyes of their dim-witted inspector. The humour may have been about as subtle as a double-decker bus, but it worked.
Who where the main characters?
Bus driver Stan Butler lived with his big-hearted, widowed mum, sister Olive and her layabout husband Arthur. Once an ugly duckling, Olive was now an ugly duck and looked as if she had fought a life-long battle against beauty treatment. Arthur did little to improve her self-esteem. At work, Stan drove the number 11 bus to Cemetery Gates with Jack Carter as his regular conductor. Their various scams — which included luring female clippies to the upper deck (there was always room for one more on top) — brought them into constant conflict with their boss, Inspector Blake, known none too affectionately as ‘Blakey’. Towards the end of the series, when Stan was posted to the Midlands, the long-suffering Blakey moved in to the Butler household as a lodger.
When was it on?
From 1969 to 1973 on ITV. There were seven series and 76 episodes in all. There were also three spin-off films, On The Buses (1971), Mutiny On The Buses (1972) and Holiday On The Buses (1973).
Who wrote it?
The scriptwriting team behind The Two Ronnies, Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, whose previous credits included ‘The Rag Trade’(also starring Reg Varney) and Meet The Wife. On The Buses was turned down by the BBC before ITV snapped it up.
Where was it set?
In the Butler household and around the depot of the Luxton and District Traction Company, somewhere in the Home Counties.
Who were the star turns?
Reg Varney starred as Stan with Bob Grant as Jack, Stephen Lewis as Blakey, Michael Robbins as Arthur and Anna Karen as Olive. Stan’s mum was played by Cicely Courtneidge in the first series but thereafter by Doris Hare.
Blakey’s lip-quivering ‘I ‘ate you, Butler’.
Who watched it?
On The Buses came from the Benny Hill school of comedy (funnily enough, Benny Hill was once Reg Varney’s straight man). There was nothing intellectual about it but the public loved it. Over 17 million would tune in to each episode and the first of the films was the top British box-office movie of 1971, outgunning James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. Anna Karen (who looked nothing like Olive in real life) used to get stacks of letters from people offering beauty advice, matrimonial tips and chastising her for having let herself go so much. ‘They would talk to me as though I was a subnormal idiot,’ she recalled, ‘or even take the mickey out of my real husband for marrying me. The most unbelievable letter came from Denmark. It was from a company which wanted Olive and Arthur to appear in a blue film!’ Even today Anna gets fan mail for Olive…but it’s not quite as explicit.
Wasn’t ‘Olive’ once a stripper?
It was very tame and a long time ago but, yes, Anna Karen did once work as a fire-eater cum stripper in a London club. ‘I was a very hard-up drama student and running out of money,’ she said. ‘I needed a job that wouldn’t interfere with my drama course but would bring me in enough money to live and pay the rent. Anyway, stripping was very carefully controlled in those days and all the important parts of my body were hidden from public view by little stars that were stuck here and there.’
And hasn’t Reg Varney got an unusual claim to fame?
He opened the world’s first cash dispenser at Barclays Bank, Enfield, on 27 June 1967. Not a lot of people know that.
Any distant cousins?
After On The Buses, Blakey retired to Spain to star in a new Wolfe/Chesney sit-com Don’t Drink The Water. Pat Coombs played his drippy sister. And in 1977 Olive reappeared in a revival of ‘The Rag Trade’. Meanwhile Reg Varney played another cheeky Cockney chappie, Billingsgate fish porter Reg Furnell, in Down The ‘Gate. Rather than the sweet smell of success, the series had the stench of rotting cod.