On The Buses was one of ITV's first major hit sitcoms. Starting in 1969, it was panned by critics for being vulgar and looking back on it today you have to agree that they were ultimately right. The show was badly dated in terms of political correctness, but despite the critics’ response, the show was a massive hit with viewers and spawned three spin-off films: On The Buses, 1971; Mutiny On The Buses, 1972; and Holiday On The Buses, 1973. The first film was so successful it outperformed the James Bond film, Diamonds Are Forever,at the UK box office, as the number one film of 1971.
In the show, Stan Butler, played by Reg Varney, works for the Luxton Bus Company as a driver and is always penniless and unlucky in love. He lives at home with his mum, played by Doris Hare, his frumpy sister Olive (Anna Karen), and her husband Arthur (Michael Robbins). At work, Stan gets up to all sorts of mischief with his mate Jack Harper, who is played by Bob Grant, much to the annoyance of the bus depot inspector, Cyril 'Blakey' Blake (Stephen Lewis). Blakey’s catchphrases became popular in British popular culture. Things like, “I ‘ate you, Butler!”; and “That's made my day, that 'as,” which he would say when Stan got what he deserved; and "I'll get you for this, Butler. You see if I don't!" which he’d say when Stan had pulled a prank on him, were all common phrases among the public at the time.
The series ran on for seven seasons despite the fact that much of the humour was completely ridiculous. Most of the jokes made by Stan, for example, such as using every opportunity to make fun of the fact that Arthur was bald or that Olive was ugly or that Blakey was lanky, were for very cheap laughs. Looking back on it today and seeing how far British comedy has come, one realizes that this type of comedy died out long before On The Buses ended. There was an inexcusable amount of misogyny in the show and women were judged almost exclusively on how sexually desirable they were. One has to wonder how it was as popular as it was at a time when women were gaining ground and this type of comedy was itching to be forgotten. Watching repeats of it now on ITV3, I find myself laughing very infrequently.
Perhaps Reg Varney was also finding the show unfunny, as he left halfway through the final series, his character having moved North. Varney, who was playing a man in his thirties, was in reality nearly sixty when the show ended. Stephen Lewis was twenty years younger than him. After the series ended, most of the cast disappeared into obscurity with the notable exception of Stephen Lewis who remained a familiar face on British television; most notably as “Smiler” in Last Of The Summer Wine. In 1988, a stage production of the show was put on and a successful tour of Australia ensued. On the strength of this success, a revival of the show was planned with all the cast on board. Back On The Buses would feature Stan and Jack running their own bus company in competition with Blakey, who ran a rival firm; however, ITV knew this type of comedy had long since run its course and mercifully never picked it up. Today, Stephen Lewis and Anna Karen are the only surviving members of the show. Reg Varney retired in 1995 and after suffering with heart trouble for years, died at the age of 92 in Devon. Bob Grant's career took a major downturn; he was heavily typecast as his character from the show and, spiraling into depression, he attempted several times to commit suicide, finally succeeding in 2003 at the age of 71. Doris Hare died in 2000 at the age of 95.