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The last episode of On the Buses aired 50 years ago. Andrew Roberts salutes its mixture of cheap sets, nylon shirts and marital angst​

Blog | By Andrew Roberts | Jul 12, 2023

Bus boy: Reg Varney with Sandra Bryant

On Boxing Day 1973, a visit to the cinema often meant faded velour upholstery, reeking of Benson & Hedges, and ads for a restaurant offering ‘a taste of the East only five minutes from this cinema’.

Finally, after an Austin Allegro commercial and the B-film Fear Is the Key, came the main attraction: Holiday on the Buses.

London Weekend Television first transmitted On the Buses (OTB), an everyday story of Reg Varney’s driver Stan Butler, in 1969.

It initiated a franchise that included comic strips, board games, singalong LPs guaranteed to empty a room – and three films made by Hammer.

The studio was then in considerable financial difficulties – On the Buses, the first of the films, had a budget of a mere £97,000 and an almost guaranteed market. The production supervisor Roy Skeggs informed Hammer’s MD, Sir James Carreras, ‘I can’t stand the thing on television,’ only to be told his options were On the Buses or dismissal.

Hammer released On the Buses in August 1971, but decided against a press screening. It was a wise plan; the Monthly Film Bulletin referred to the script’s ‘idiot sexuality and rabid anti-feminism’.

However, it made more than £400,000 in just five days, eventually exceeding £1 million in box-office receipts. The popularity of OTB resulted in two sequels, 1972’s Mutiny and Holiday; they were all prime examples of that semi-forgotten 1970s cinematic trope – film versions of situation comedies.

The 1950s marked several radio and TV film adaptations, but the genre really dates from 1969. The success of the cinematic Till Death Us Do Part led to several spin-offs over the next 11 years, with the attraction of viewers’ being able to see their favourite characters in colour.

By 1970, most comedy shows were broadcast in the full spectrum, but black-and-white sets remained the norm until 1977.

OTB focused on the Butler household and workplace in an atmosphere of utter grimness. One of Hammer’s poster ideas was ‘From Telly Laughs to Belly Laughs’, but the reality was the hideous marriage of Olive and Arthur Rudge, Stan’s sister and brother-in-law.

As Oldie contributor Roger Lewis described their relationship, ‘How did people laugh at this? It is Strindberg.’ Yet cinemagoers paid 50 new pence to revel in Technicolor visions of domestic abuse.

Hammer released the OTB films for the Christmas and summer holiday markets, although their visions of marital angst, bleak postwar housing estates and rusting Vauxhall Victors seem the antithesis of jollity.

With Mutiny on the Buses (1972), Kevin Brennan’s manager is a study in barely suppressed hatred. A safari-park sequence features a dispirited lioness considering the indigestion consequences of eating the cast.

Holiday on the Buses (1973), like several sitcom films, has a vacation setting. But the location work, at Pontins of Prestatyn, only accentuates the picture’s sheer cheapness.

The film stock looks as though it was Sellotaped together, but it is wholly fitting for a nightmare vision of Bri-Nylon shirts, Jason King hairstyles and an air of forced enjoyment. The scenes in the Butler chalet rival Mike Leigh for sheer bleakness, and the Italian chef’s attack on the smaller and much older Varney has all the inherent comedy of Get Carter.

As with the worst of the Carry On series, the cast’s expertise saved the OTB pictures from being entirely unwatchable.

Varney’s starring role in 1972’s The Best Pair of Legs in the Business, as an ageing holiday-camp entertainer, makes one regret no one cast him as Archie Rice. As Stan’s mother, Doris Hare brought decades of theatrical experience to Buses. Bob Grant and Stephen Lewis, who played the conductor Jack Harper and ‘Blakey’ the inspector, were actor-writers from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop.

Most notably, the talents of Anna Karen and Michael Robbins made the Rudges a horrifically plausible couple.

A further key to the films’ popularity is wish fulfilment. Christopher Fowler referred to Jack and Stan’s adventures as ‘sex farces about two gargoyle busmen trying to shag hefty “dollies” ’.

But if female leads in Holiday could fall for Varney and Grant’s unconventional-looking heroes, then, with luck, that applied to any middle-aged male cinema patron.

Nor did On the Buses make the error of siding with the management. A British Board of Film Classification examiner wrote, in mild incredulity, about the first film, ‘It does not appear you often have time to drive a bus, but, if you do, you prove expert at throwing passengers off the bus or leaving them behind.’

By contrast, Carry On at Your Convenience (1971), released within months of the original Buses picture, supported the Establishment and initially lost money.

Hammer planned the possibly ironically titled Fun on the Buses, but it never reached fruition. Holiday proved the least popular of the trilogy, partly because the television series concluded in May 1973 – 50 years ago.

The films continue to surface on the small screen, but Holiday on the Buses should be viewed in a crumbling ABC cinema, with a bored Diana Dors lookalike usherette selling lethal hot dogs.

Only in such an environment can you appreciate ‘comic’ scenarios that are not so much telegraphed as signposted to the audience. Plus the unforgettable sight of Reg Varney in woollen swimming trunks.