On the Buses (GB 1971)


Director : Harry Booth

Starring :  Reg Varney, Stephen Lewis, Anna Karen, Michael Robbins, Doris Hare, Bob Grant

Music : Max Harris

Cinematography : Mark McDonald

Screenplay : Ronald Chesney, Ronald Wolfe

Bit Parts : Arthur Mullard, Pat Coombs, Wendy Richard

Fact 1:  Reg Varney was the first person to use an autobank in the UK (but you knew that, didn't you?)

Fact 2 : The most popular film of the year in the UK! it grossed far more than its nearest rival Diamonds are Forever . 

In one line : The employment of women drivers threatens to cut the overtime of the male drivers at the Luxton and District Traction Company.


Bus driver Stan Butler (Varney) cannot afford the repayments on his washing machine. He needs overtime to make ends meet, but the management at the Luxton and District Bus Company have reneged on a deal not to employ women bus drivers and Stan's plans are thwarted. Stan and his conductor pal Jack (Grant) devise devious methods to get the company to change its new policy.

Meanwhile, Stan's sister Olive is having a baby.

And that's it really.


The most requested film to join 'the list'.

"When are you going to 'do' On the Buses?" is the most frequent email I receive at this site, so, for all you aficionados...

I first saw OTB on a double bill with Raquel Welch dinosaur movie / flesh-fest One Million Years BC. I didn't laugh then, and on second viewing (many, many years later), it was even worse than I remembered.   

On the Buses was one of the most joyless, charmless, humour-free sitcoms there's ever been.  Despite this, I know that I watched it religiously (more later) as a kid, but I don't remember ever laughing at it - it was more the case that there really wasn't anything else to watch at certain times in the early seventies. With only two and a half channels and no video recorders, there was a generation of kids who watched pretty much everything, no matter how dire, tawdry or offensive a program might be.

I was going to give OTB 0/10, but as others have pointed out, the Butlers, the Rudges (Olive and Arthur), Blakey and Jack are almost a living breathing exemplar of Hobbes 'view of human life being' solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short '. Having said that, it has to be pointed out that Varney lived to the ripe old age of 92, and in this film the dirty old get plays crumpet-mad Stan despite being 57 years old.

There's a bit of a 'women's lib' plot, but it's only there to serve streams of dialogue that contain one or two half-formed gags, but are in essence, just layers of crude invective, bullying and abuse. Again, then, OTB pretty much targets and represents the life of Joe Public with a pinpoint accuracy that Harry Pinter could only dream of.

The film is populated with grotesques. Bob Grant was possibly the least likely ladies' man there's ever been:

With teeth of tombstone and a cartoon vulture's visage, Jacko was second only to Butler as a rumpomeister at the 'Luxton and District'. In real life, Grant was an urbane, bohemian motherfucker who regretted his association with his character and his subsequent typecasting. Bizarrely, I spotted him in Rhodes in 1986 when he had apparently done a Reggie Perrin / John Stonehouse. Had he not disappeared from the public consciousness before disappearing from Britain, I could have known about his desperate plight and shopped him to the tabloids. I wouldn't have, but I'm sure I would have a stronger reaction than blithely tossing "Look - there's Jack from On the Buses," into an intellectual arena fuelled with Skol lager and cheap Greek Karelia Lights, a cigarette which tasted of  Kwik Save own-brand pepper and desiccated donkey shit. 

The film itself is slightly more vulgar than its immensely popular TV parent. The usual British fear of sex and its preoccupation with toilet matters are manifested throughout. Michael Robbins as Stan's brother-in-law Arthur redefines the word 'lugubrious' and Stephen Lewis embodies the vampiric / Hitler creation that allows its lightweight heroes something to rebel against and is so prevalent in many aspects of British popular culture.

Of the main cast only the long-retired Anna Karen is still with us. The rest of the principal leads and supporting cast have long since passed away (Richards 2008 / Coombs 2002). In terms of performing, Lewis was the last working actor - last seen appearing in Last of the Summer Wine - and may in fact have been CGI for all anyone knows - but who'd have thought that the anaemic, cadaverous Blakey would be the last man standing from such a healthy, youthful and downright sexy cast?  

Like many British films of the era, OTB is probably of most value as a social / historical document of a bygone era. British cars are the norm and road congestion is non existent. The film shows (on fairly high quality stock) an England that no longer exists.

Footballer Ian Wright loved On the Buses. He said it was the only British program where black men and women existed as co-workers rather than racist stooges or joke-butts, and I suppose that's another tiny feather in its cap (it loses points for having one character called 'Chalky') , but it's still an appalling programme and a horrible film.

There were two sequels - Holiday on the Buses and Mutiny on the Buses, both of which suffered from ever decreasing financial returns and the plug was pulled on the series and its film spin-offs in 1973.

All in all a terrible TV series and a terrible film, but one that exerts an equally terrible hold on the collective pasts and imaginations of a certain generation - especially author Robert Rankin whose book The Garden of Unearthly Delights envisages a future world where the apparently shite, sexist, unpleasant TV series On the Buses has become the basis of a major religion.    

How would that work? Well, in terms of Christianity, Stan as Jesus, Jack as St Peter, Doris Hare as Mary, Olive as Mary Magdalen, Arthur as St Thomas the doubter and Blakey as Satan is certainly a working model.

So if anyone asks you: "Why was Reg Varney chosen to use the first cash machine?"

You can say with some degree of authority: "Because he was Jesus."

Was going to be  0/10,  but with further deliberation: