The On the Buses movie franchise was every bit the enigma that the television series was
On the Buses On the Big Screen by Brian Slade
When United Artists stumped up the cash to persuade Sean Connery to return to his variation of James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever, they will have sat back content that the only battle ahead was Bond’s efforts to thwart arch-enemy Blofeld in his attempts to hold the world to ransom upon destroying Washington. But there was another unexpected foe they could not possibly have foreseen – a pair of lecherous bus employees, their Hitler-like inspector and a driver’s complaining family. The battle between Diamonds and Forever and On the Buses for top spot at the box office was amazingly won by Butler, Blakey and company as the first of a trio of movie adaptations.
On The Buses was already a runaway success on the small screen by 1971. The series had been created by Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe in 1969. The two Rons were no stranger to success in sitcom world having penned The Rag Trade, the Peter Jones vehicle set in a fashion factory. That show had relied on Frank Muir green-lighting the project with the BBC after rejection from commercial television, and in a reversal of channels, On the Buses had been rejected by the Beeb but approved by Muir at LWT. Despite similar success with On the Buses, critical reception was unanimously damning…but it made no difference to the show’s popularity.
At the same time as On the Buses was defying its critics, Hammer Film Studios were down on their fortunes. Famed for their stream of horror films starring the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, turning to a much-derided British sitcom to improve its fortunes seemed most unlikely – but that’s what they opted for…and their move ended up fully justified.
The first movie version of On the Buses altered very little from the television version. The bus company was changed from the Luxton and District Motor Traction Company to the Town and District, but the cast and characters went unaltered. That meant that the action focussed on the antics of driver Stan Butler (Reg Varney), ‘clippie’ Jack Harper (Bob Grant) and their disapproving inspector Blakey (Stephen Lewis). Stan’s life away from the bus depot was dominated by his Mum (Doris Hare), sister Olive (Anna Karen) and her husband Arthur (Michael Robbins).
Money and women are the driving forces in Stan’s life, and the two mix badly as he loses his plentiful overtime payments, the bus company deciding to allow female employees. It means Stan and his conductor are back to their regular hours and his family at home have to budget accordingly, having been splashing the cash on indulgent options while he made hay with extra shifts. Appalled by their drop in income, while also being unhappy at women being allowed to drive buses (this was the early 1970s!), Stan and Jack set about trying to show the women up as not being up for the task. Their questionable lecherous behaviour towards women is at much at risk as their finances.
Attempts to get the women fired worked to a point, those same women however being re-employed as inspectors and conductors, causing Stan and Jack to be split up. Stan is then paired with Sandra (Caroline Dowdeswell) as the movie ends with the possibility of Stan settling down at last. The movie offered obvious sequel opportunities.
Drawing in more money in the UK box office in 1971 than any other movie meant that inevitably Hammer would proceed with a sequel, and Stan indeed did look like he was settling down as Mutiny on the Buses opened, although Sandra is no longer the object of his affection. His wedding plans with new ticket collector Susy (Janet Mahoney) are put on hold as once again, finances dictate Stan’s life direction. Arthur is forced to train as a bus driver having been made redundant, while Stan tries to increase his income by working his way into what he sees as a more lucrative job – driving the Windsor Safari tour bus. Back at the depot, Blakey’s role is under more scrutiny after the appearance of a new boss, Mr Jenkins (Kevin Breenan). Jenkins imposes more restrictions on the employees, but having been rumbled as having an affair with one of the staff it is he who is blackmailed into allowing Stan to drive the Safari Park bus. Chaos ensues during a tour route test drive being run by Stan and Blakey, a lion joining the bus tour ensuring that the company loses its contract and Blakey gets demoted. By the end of the movie, Susy has had second thoughts about wedding Stan, but in no time at all he has pledged to marry another clippie, Gloria.
By 1973 On the Buses was starting to lose its popularity, not least with its own stars. Both Varney and Robbins were ready to leave, sparking the end of the series, but not before the end of the movie trilogy, taking the stars away from the bus depot and into a holiday camp in Holiday on the Buses. Once again, the behaviour of Stan and Jack incurs the wrath of their superiors, but this time it means the end of their stay with the bus company. When Stan is distracted by a topless girl, the collisions and injuries he causes result in him, Jack and Blakey all being fired. Blakey ends up as a dancing instructor at a holiday camp, so is horrified to find his arch enemies arrive to take jobs there as well. Similar antics to the earlier films abound, primarily focussing on Stan chasing women and being foiled in his pursuit. When the inevitable happens and all end up back on the dole queue, Butler finds himself down the job centre at the mercy of their new employee – Blakey!
Holiday on the Buses proved to be the end of the line for the franchise, despite reports of a fourth movie in the offing. By the time of its release, Varney was in his late fifties and his relentless pursuit of buxom young ladies was becoming uncomfortable viewing at best, so it was perhaps inevitable that the show and movie series should end, albeit Blakey was spun off in a series called Don’t Drink the Water and Olive would appear as an employee in a later reboot of The Rag Trade.
The On the Buses movie franchise was every bit the enigma that the television series was. Almost as one, reviews were unkind to both – but the public refused to listen. The movies made Hammer a good deal of money, even if they are a curious entry amongst the array of Dracula and Frankenstein stories. The British audiences were still enjoying Carry On… films, even if that saucy franchise was in its final throws, and with programmes like Love Thy Neighbour flourishing on television, however unpalatable it seems now, the humour in the On the Buses movies was a long way from being the worst of its kind. Classic cinema these three may not be, but they were a money-making - almost studio saving - plus for Hammer, and a bawdy and exceedingly British success story.
Published on March 31st, 2022. Written by Brian Slade for Television Heaven.