Tuesday, December 26, 2023

On the Omnibuses: The radical roots of On the Buses

I had dozed off with the TV on a high-numbered channel and woke up a little way into this. You can imagine my confusion. What was I seeing?

If I say it's nothing like a usual episode of On the Buses, many readers will be delighted.

But maybe we shouldn't be so surprised to find the show encompassing a tutorial on Edwardian trade union law. Because there were remarkable links between ITV situation comedy and Joan Littlewood's radical and experimental Theatre Royal at Stratford East.

Earlier today I watched Sparrows Can't Sing, a 1963 film about social change in the East End adapted from a play that emerged from Littlewood's theatre.

The cast was extraordinary: James Booth, Barbara Windsor, Roy Kinnear, George Sewell, Murray Melvin and Harry H. Corbett.

And among it too were many future stalwarts of ITV situation comedy among the cast: Brian Murphy, Yootha Joyce, Arthur Mullard, Bob Grant, Stephen Lewis and Queenie Watts. Yet ITV sit coms have always been ranked below the BBC's output.

The original play, titled Sparrers Can't Sing, owed much to Frank Norman and Lionel Bart's musical Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, and was developed by the cast in rehearsal. But for the film, a single writer was credited.

It was Stephen Lewis, later famous as Blakey from On the Buses. And On the Omnibuses was written by him and Bob Grant, who played Jack the conductor.

But enough from me: it's time for On the Omnibuses.

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