Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On the Buses explains the Jimmy Savile era

Though his roots reached back to the era of post-war racketeering, Jimmy Savile came to prominence in that odd period between the dawn of the permissive society and the rise of feminism. This era took in the second half of the 1960s and most of the 1970s.

And I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that the key texts in understanding this era are the three spin-off films made from the ITV comedy series On the Buses.

This was a rare success for ITV comedy which was shown between 1969 and 1973 and starred Reg Varney as the bus driver Stan Butler and Bob Grant as his conductor Jack Harper.

There were three spin-off films: On the Buses (1971), Mutiny on the Buses (1972) and Holiday on the Buses (1973). As a Guardian article on the oeuvre by Andrew Roberts once said:
It may seem bizarre now, but On the Buses was the most successful British film of 1971, outgrossing allcomers, including Diamonds Are Forever.
Roberts went on to aay:
In retrospect, On the Buses is as bleak as any offering from Ken Loach, with its London of rusting Hillman Minxes, bare light bulbs and kitchens reeking of congealed fat.
All that was true, but we should not ignore the sexual politics of On the Buses either. Reg Varney and Bob Grant were both middle-aged and not particularly attractive, yet all the dolly-bird conductresses were depicted as being up for sex with them at the drop of a peaked cap.

And the first of the films revolved around Varney and Grant's successful attempt to sabotage management's attempt to bring in women drivers. Females characters may have been available, but they were certainly not liberated.

What of the labour politics of On the Buses. Stumbling and Mumbling once wrote a post blaming all Britain's subsequent economic woes on Reg Varney - he also opened the first ATM machine.

Andrew Roberts, however, sees it differently:
But it sold vast numbers of cinema seats – unlike its near contemporary, Carry On at Your Convenience. The only entry in the Carry On series with a contemporary blue-collar work setting, At Your Convenience made the fatal error of siding with the management – unlike On the Buses, where Inspector Blakey merely exists to be splashed by Reg Varney's bus passing through a convenient puddle.
Even at the time, Blakey was my favourite character. And I don't know if it is age, my experience of public transport or our post-Thatcher society, but I cannot help noticing today that the passengers counted for nothing in On the Buses.

Just at Alexander Mackenderick, the director of Whisky Galore!, sympathised with Captain Waggett, the representative of English officialdom who attempted to round up the whisky rescued from the wreck of the S.S. Cabinet Minister, so I now see Blakey as the hero of On the Buses and its spin-off films.

And whatever you think of the labour politics of On the Buses, its sexual politics was indefensible.

I 'ate you, Butler.

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Matthew Harris said...

Yeah, but a bit unfair to bracket On the Buses' attempts at humour (however poor those attempts may have been) with the very serious crimes of which Savile is accused. Even if the writers of On the Buses are/were the authors of some dated, sexist sitcom scripts, they were still people who would have been as horrified as we are by the crimes of which Savile stands accused - one of the writers was someone whom I once met.

Anonymous said...

It is true that On The Buses was televised during the Jimmy Savile era. But its wise to remember that this was quality television like so much of the 70's was. It was a time when we all could enjoy a good honest laugh..as opposed to hold back in case we offend. If your going to through On The Buses then your going to have to through in Love Thy Neighbour, The Carry On's, It Aint Arf Hot Mum. I could go on...
The 70's was very much enjoyed and remembered by the majority.

Anonymous said...

I was too young to watch On the Buses when it was on, born in 1972, but having watched the series on dvd's recently I have to say I laughed til I cried. Reg Varney was a comedic master, his and Jack's getting the better of Blakey was brilliant, so was the home set up of Arthur, Olive and Mum. Every episode was laugh out loud comedy, how often can we say that about today's TV?

Yes, it was sexist, absolutely. But it was of its time, but the humour was family entertainment at it's best, and still beats anything around on tv these days.

Anonymous said...

Of its time. Yep. The 70s. Where philanthropists could buy their victims with money.

You have to look at everything when considering the 70s and what was wrong with them. Most hail them as some golden era and in some ways they were, but it's important to see the problems. On the buses perpetuated a stereotype of women that in the 70s was prevalent and clearly damaging. Portrayals in pop culture do matter and they can damage society.

Anonymous said...

Well, they couldn't have been too damaging or we'd still be living like that today.

Dougie said...

I would agree with pretty much everything you've said here, although to blame Savile on this programme is maybe pushing it a bit as society was like that, not just OTB. I've discussed this programme at length on my blog if anyone's interested.

Dougie said...

'Cor blimey Stan, how did you do it?: On The Buses'' at www.genxculture.com