Of all the ghoulish sitcoms produced in the Sixties and Seventies, On the Buses to me seems the creepiest. February 28th marks the 50th anniversary of the first episode.
Instead of a classroom positively bursting with what in those days was called crumpet (Please, Sir!) or a boneyard inhabited by Harry H. Corbett yearning fruitlessly for crumpet (Steptoe and Son), here we had a pair of ugly mugs, leering at women passengers and women bus conductresses, shamelessly looking up skirts as girls ascended to the top deck, and generally treating their bus route to the Cemetery Gates as an excuse to entrap all available crumpet.
They had it off pat. 'I do all the driving,' says Stan (Reg Varney) of Jack (Bob Grant), 'and he comes along and punches her ticket.'
There were over seventy episodes, broadcast between 1969 and 1973, plus three feature film spin-offs, produced by Hammer, the horror people. It was all shot in Wembley and at Wood Green bus depot, in North London. The setting was vaguely Essex – Southend and Basildon are mentioned. The writers were Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe, who were put to work by Frank Muir, the Light Entertainment executive at LWT.
The randiness of the show is appalling. 'Corr, that’s worth hanging about for !', 'A couple of crackers just arrived!', and 'Very tasty, mate. She’s crumpet, mate. She’s available!' were typical lines of dialogue. As ever in Britain, nothing can ever come to pass, however. Frustration is the name of the game – battle-axe mothers barge in, babies start screaming, husbands return unexpectedly...
Marriage was a total dead-end, as shown with Olive (Anna Karen) and Arthur (Michael Robbins), Stan’s monster sister and layabout brother-in-law. Arthur snarls at Olive for being 'a stupid great lump'. When she gets into a swimming costume, she is told, 'You look positively obscene, woman!' How did people laugh at this? It is Strindberg.
Stan and Jack’s schemes are most often thwarted by Blakey, the bus inspector, played by Stephen Lewis, one of Joan Littlewood’s troupe. He was like Hitler crossed with Old Mother Riley, and his strangulated cry, 'I hate you, Butler!', was a national catchphrase.
Reg Varney lived to the age of 92, dying in Budleigh Salterton in 2008. Mule-faced Bob Grant committed suicide in 2003 – gassed himself in his car, in Twyning, Gloucestershire, depressed at being out of work. Apart from the occasional panto and an Australian tour of No Sex Please, We’re British, nothing had come his way. He was 71.