On the Buses: The Complete First Series Review
Two things to say before I get to the meat of this review. Two minutes ago, I went to a quiet part of the house to watch this with the words, "I'm off to watch On The Buses", being words that I genuinely never thought would pass my lips. And while I watch this, Channel 4 are showing Top 100 Greatest Funny Moments, which I suspect will not feature a single gag from On The Buses but in the hope of being proved wrong, I'll leave it on in the background, soundlessly, whilst I look on at the adventures of Stan Butler and Jack Harper, driver and conductor as they, in the words of the press release, get through the day with the minimum of work and the maximum ogling of birds.
Therein, almost contrary to everything that you might expect from a television production company is what lies at the heart of On The Buses - two middle-aged men ogling at birds. Were there any clearer statement that The Ascent Of Man and Civilisation were but fleeting glimpses of a high intellect in the schedules, it was On The Buses, where no gag, taste and decency permitting, was too obvious, no storyline too predictable and, probably most importantly, no skirt too short. It is indeed a rare old sight, with 'old' being the word most deserving of being stressed, with the 52-year-old Reg Varney playing Stan Butler as a man with an eye for the younger lady. Much, much younger, in fact, as he charms clippies half his age with banter that barely stretches beyond, "Cor blimey!" at the first sight of a stockinged thigh.
Of course, there's more to Stan than just checking out the birds but not a vast amount more. Despite the cries of concern at the increasing number of twentysomethings living at home in these opening years of this century, sociologists would be despairing at the sight of the fifty-two-year-old Stan Butler still living at home with his mother (Cicely Courtneidge), his sister Olive (Anna Karen) and her husband Arthur (Michael Robbins). Doubtless, this family life was there to give Stan some kind of life away from the depot and to provide a contrast to his chasing a bit of slap'n'tickle during his working hours to the sight of him curled up on his mother's sofa with Iris whilst his mother's bloomers dry on the washing line is a sight to behold. Not, you understand, for it's comedic value, more that it's an odd combination of scripted stories that, together, are as convincing as such farces ever were in British sitcoms.
But it's hard to be too churlish to or too critical of On The Buses as it does one thing very well - its portrayal of a time and a place in British life that's passed from television, being in amongst the working classes. Use that phrase in 2006 and the televisual shorthand is to show a block of new town flats, deserted subways and burnt out bus shelters but On The Buses has a feeling about it not unlike the old Coronation St., that of a close-knit community having chips for tea five nights a week and beans on toast the other two whilst weekend nights were spent in the pub. It was not unlikely for a married couple to still be living with their mother - an elderly bachelor brother may have been quite a different matter - but there's some comfort to be had in the family life that's a bedrock to Butler's womanising.
Probably best of all is that On The Buses had no aspirations to be upwardly mobile nor to stray too far from its home turf. Unlike the sight, as I was reminded by my colleague Mike Sutton, of June Whitfield dressed as a punk, there's no equal here, such as, for 1969, of a flower child from the Summer of Love being pursued by Stan Butler with a dandelion in his hair and wearing a kaftan. Instead, On The Buses is comfortably in its place, a pre-Thatcher Britain where the slightest shift to one's working pattern was deemed worthy of the lighting of a brazier and of being on strike and where management was represented by the sniveling, mean-spirited Blakey (Stephen Lewis), currently in BBC's long-running Last Of The Summer Wine. Even the women, the clippies on the buses, are not entirely unlike a Stan Butler themselves, being brassy, flirty and unafraid of show some leg when leading the buses out onto the busy road.
None of which did much to attract the attentions of the BBC when Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney brought it to them after The Rag Trade and Meet The Wife but LWT were another matter and were much more fond of On The Buses. Giving it pride of place in the weekend schedules, they were rewarded with an audience that took not one jot of interest in what the critics said, who, unsurprisingly, didn't like it a great deal, and who stuck with the show for seven years. Said audience even remained with the show through the three film adaptations and something about On The Buses remains in the national psyche. Who can't, after all, picture Blakey nor remember his catchphrase ("I'll get you, Butler!" for anyone who has no knowledge of the show).
It's clearly not the best British sitcom and it's probably not one of the most fondly remembered ones but something about On The Buses has lingered about our shared cultural experience. Yes, maybe like a bad smell but it's remembered where others are not and I suspect that Network might do surprisingly well with this release and of those that will follow.
The Early Shift (25m44s): Up too early in the morning for even Tony Blackburn to be on the radio and for the staff canteen to be open, Stan is put on an early shift. But not able to have his early cup of tea, he's caught drinking from a flask in the cab of his bus, which Blakey objects to, causing the drivers and clippies to go on strike. But all is not well at home when Olive and Arthur get caught in a rainstorm and Mum realises that there'll be no money coming in.
The New Conductor (25m39s): Stan's got a new clippie but Jack has good news - it's Iris and her skirt is shorter even than Stan's working day. And things go well, so well in fact that Stan agrees to work an extra shift to earn enough to take Iris out on a date but when he takes her back to his house after the pub, how will she cope with the sight of Mum's wet bloomers drying in front of the fire that she and Stan are cuddling up by?
Olive Takes a Trip (24m56s): Things are tight in the Butler house so Olive goes out in search for a job, finding one as a clippie at the bus depot. Taking no small amount of pleasure in Olive joining the depot, Blakey puts her on the same bus as Stan but what Olive didn't explain is that she doesn't travel well, getting travel sick before the bus even leaves the depot.
Bus Driver's Stomach (24m38s): Tennis elbow? Writer's block? Builder's bum? What about bus driver's stomach? Sat on the engine of the bus all day has given Stan a dicky belly and when Blakey announces compulsory medical checks for all members of staff, Stan has only five days to get fit enough to pass. He may even give up his fried breakfast to keep his job.
The New Inspector (24m34s): There's still not enough coming in to the Butler house so when a vacancy comes up at the depot for a new Inspector, Stan applies. When he gets the job, he can't believe it but nor can he believe his mates turning their back on him. Is it worth wearing the Inspector's uniform when Jack won't talk to him, he can't get a ride back to the depot and the miniskirt-wearing lovelies who work as clippies won't even bend over for him anymore?
The Canteen (24m11s): Pity the poor English stomach before the kitchen revolution of the seventies - fried food was fine but when Stan hires a new cook, her curries test the palettes of the drivers and clippies. With the bus crews threatening to strike, Stan and Jack appoint a new cook...Olive!
The Darts Match (24m42s): It's the boys against the girls when two clippies, Iris and Jenny, challenge Jack and Stan to a darts match. But Stan, like his darts, is more than a little rusty, which isn't helped when he drops a dart in Olive's cooking. Only days to go before the match and with a new set of darts to break in, Stan isn't feeling...er, match fit.
Having never seen On The Buses before other than for the remarkably successful movie versions - the first of these films, 1971's On The Buses, was the most successful film at the British box office in the year in which it was released, beating even than Diamonds Are Forever - it was a surprise to see that this first season of the show is in black and white. Otherwise, On The Buses is, like many of these Network releases, largely what you'd expect - the picture is soft and without any kind of background detail but I doubt that there's much that Network could have done in their applying spit and polish to this.
The 2.0 mono soundtrack is, again, pretty much what you'd expect, in that it does the job but without ever standing out. There's not a lot of noise in it, though, but the dialogue can sound a little lost at times, which isn't, it has to be said, the fault of Network, more as a symptom of the era in which it was made.
There are no extras on this DVD release.
I was right as well - no mention of On The Buses in Channel 4's 100 Greatest Funny Moments. But that's rather unfair on On The Buses as Channel 4, showing as much regard for history as Stalin, simply appeared to have written anything prior to Brass Eye out of comedy's back pages. Nicole and Paris from This Simply Life and Ant and Dec make the list where the falling chandelier from Only Fools And Horses does not?
Clearly no place, then, for On The Buses but I know which I laughed at more and, surprisingly, it was the adventures of Stan and Jack at the Luxton & District Traction Company. Sure, it's unsophisticated stuff but that's part of the appeal of it and a girl in a miniskirt getting cheeky, as Iris frequently does, has an everlasting appeal. The comedy's aged a great deal but this is for those who remember when the sight of a pair of bloomers caused hysterics, when a dowdy sister unable to peel a potato without bleeding was a national stereotype and when the boss was a devious blighter who, not twenty-five years after the end of the war, wore a Hitler moustache. No, not subtle and never that funny either but good enough for anyone after a shot of Britcom nostalgia.
Last updated: 19/04/2018 06:13:54