Budleigh’s Reg was a superstar
Reg Varney, Budleigh Salterton’s adopted son, was a bona-fide superstar.
Music-hall comedian, star of 60s sit-coms The Rag Trade and On the Buses – which was shown in 35 countries - he even made it to Hollywood; incredibly the 1971 film of the same name outgrossed both James Bond film Diamonds are Forever and Michael Caine’s gangster flick Get Carter, combined.
In fact, he was so famous he was featured as a guest in This is Your Life and opened the world’s first ever cash point! So it is apt that, three years after his death in Budleigh Salterton’s Pinewood Nursing home, after living in Dark Lane for 20 years, fan Tex Fisher has completed his book ‘I ‘Ate You Butler!’- a lovingly crafted book on the series that made Reg a household name across the world, and shot him to superstardom.
And, like the series, the book is laden with appropriately smutty innuendos – one chapter is entitled; ‘Lovely pair of Bristols’ – obviously referring to the couple of Bristol FLF/ FLF6LX Lodekka buses featured in the series.
It tells the story of the origins of the series, the cult of personality surrounding Reg Varney and the end of the series after seven seasons. Both adored and panned in equal measure - critics despised the ‘working class humour’ - the comedy followed the life of the skirt-chasing bus driver Stan Butler and his work at the dysfunctional Luxton & District Traction Company, together with conductor best mate Jack Harper and petty martinet Inspector Cyril ‘Blakey’ Blake.
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Tex said: “I, like all other fans, know the episodes backwards, and can quote lines ad nauseam, but to this day, I have found that the story of how the show came about seems to be hushed up.
“There is a book, many fan clubs, and many websites - all devoted to this wonderful show, but nobody has bothered to dig a little deeper into the programme and peek behind the depot doors. So, 41 years late - here is that story.”
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It was the late 1960s and, following several classic sitcoms, Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney were looking for a new idea: “We didn’t really have an idea of what we wanted to do,” explains Ronald Chesney. “All we knew was that we wanted to use Reg Varney again, as he had been very good to us in The Rag Trade.”
Ronald Wolfe said: “We knew we wanted Reg in the lead. We then thought what this character would do for a living - a shopkeeper, a plumber, an electrician?”
“Everything just seemed to fit around a bus driver,” Ronald Chesney said.
Reginald Alfred Varney was born in 1916 in Canning Town, London. A keen piano player from an early age, it was his impressive instrumental skills and general showmanship that secured Reg his first public performances.
After leaving school at 14, Varney started work as a messenger boy at the Regent Palace Hotel in London, prior to obtaining a paid position as a pianist at the Plumstead Radical Club in Woolwich.
It was this musical talent that helped in the development of Reg’s character, Stan Butler; it is suggested that the character was partly based on crooner Matt Monro, a man commonly referred to as the ‘singing bus driver.’
Being of a similar height and stature, Monro could have been the perfect model for Reg Varney to build his character, and the pair were in fact friends.
“Matt and Reg knew each other fairly well,” explained Matt Monro’s daughter, Michele.
“They would all see each other on the circuit.”
But the two Ronnies insist that there was no deliberate connection; “I think it was just a coincidence.”
During the Second World War, Varney served with the Royal Engineers in the Far East, progressing his entertainment repertoire with gang shows and army concerts. This fuelled Varney’s ambition to perform and, following demobilisation, he returned to England, appearing in the revue Gaytime, alongside another future comic Benny Hill.
Variety halls led to television, and his first major role, as cutter Reg Turner in The Rag Trade in 1961. Further television followed, and after a brief hiatus due to a heart attack, Varney added to his success in the 1967 sitcom Beggar My Neighbour.
The rise to fame led him to becoming the celebrity of choice to open the world’s first ATM at Barclays, Enfield, in June 1967.
Following this, Reg was the first choice for Stan Butler. “He had been our foreman in The Rag Trade, and we knew that his superb experience and charisma would make him a wonderful Stan,” Chesney said.
“But Reg was in Australia at the time, so we weren’t sure if he could be in the show. We sent him some details of our idea, and thankfully he was more than happy to do it. I remember the wire we got from him - it just said, ‘Right, I’m learning to drive a bus!’”
The Rag Trade
Reg was delighted to be offered the job, and was sure the show had potential. “Dad thought it would be a safe bet as it had both work and home life combined,” Varney’s daughter, Jeanne said. “It had the contrast that could give rise to many funny situations. He was thrilled to be working with the Ronnies again, as he had done The Rag Trade. He considered them to be excellent writers.”
While by today’s standards the plot lines were not exactly politically correct but with upwards of 16 million viewers tuning in during the show’s prime, On the Buses swiftly became a staple of British TV and spawned three films.
When the turmoil of the working day was over, Stan would retire home to be greeted by his overbearing mother, dowdy, bespectacled sister Olive and her indolent husband. Life was seldom smooth in Luxton.
“We just had to have real buses,” explained Ronald Wolfe. “Having real buses just added to the show and made it more realistic. On the Buses could not have happened without buses.”
But London’s largest and most respected bus operator, London Transport, wanted no part of the charade. “The director wrote a letter to them and asked to use LT buses,” said Wolfe.
“They just came back with a letter saying ‘No’. They thought the idea of us having lazy, work-skiving drivers would give them a bad reputation. That letter was framed and hung in the office for a while!”
Surprisingly, Reg Varney left mid-way through the seventh series - Varney, who had been with the show for an incredible 68 episodes was sad to leave, but felt that the programme was nearing its natural end. “Dad decided the show had had a good enough run by the time he left it,” said Reg’s daughter, Jeanne.
“Perhaps the new writers were not so good, but I think he just didn’t want On the Buses to be remembered as being repetitive and less funny, as it surely would have been. Shows have a natural limit and On the Buses had to come to that limit.”
Reg did, however, return, along with Michael Robbins, to appear in Holiday On the Buses in 1973. “That film had a very funny script,” added Jeanne. “It also made a nice goodbye to the series.”
In 1975, Reg began concentrating on his own brainchild, a sitcom centring around the life of a fish porter at Billingsgate Market, entitled Down the Gate, however, the series wasn’t a major hit and viewers found it difficult to think of Reg in a new non-bus related, role.
“I think there was always a chance of typecasting,” said Jeanne. “Stan had so much of dad in him that it was inevitable. I think dad would have loved to do straight acting, which he was very good at, but he never got the chance.
“He did, however, do a lot of work in Australia, which he loved, until he got a heart problem and retired.”
Reg suffered his second major heart attack in 1981 and chose to take life at a slower pace afterwards. He returned once more to Australia, a place where he was still very much a celebrity, having co-starred with Billy Raymond in the Channel O production of Rose and Crown which ran for 13 episodes back in 1969, and he toured with his cabaret act to packed theatres across the country.
In 1988, he returned once more to resume his role as Stan in an Australian On the Buses stage play.
Soon after his return to England, Reg felt it was time to leave the public spotlight and he retired to his home in Dark Lane, Budleigh Salterton.
“He always said he was never stagestruck,” said Jeanne. “He enjoyed his career and his retirement in Devon with my mum.”
In 1990, viewers of Wogan were astonished when the full cast of On the Buses assembled on stage to discuss plans for a revival series.
At first, Reg Varney walked over to Terry Wogan’s sofa, and after a chat about his early life and career, the rest of the cast joined him to discuss the prospects of Back On the Buses.
“The old gang are still incredibly popular,” explained Varney, gaining huge cheers for the audience.
To all intents and purposes, a revival of On the Buses seemed to be definitely on the cards.
The idea sounded tantalising to fans, but it soon became apparent that the proposed Back On the Buses would not materialise.
Varney took time from his absence in television to write his autobiography, The Little Clown, although a second, promised, volume never appeared.
The first one stopped before his time at the Luxton and District Bus Company. He dedicated his time to piano playing and painting. Among his many talents, Reg was a skilled artist.
Having remained popular for an astonishing 40 years, with its own series in America and constant reruns in primetime slots around the world, On the Buses maintains its position in the top echelon of the most influential and memorable television series of all time.
? The article has been written thanks to extracts from the book with permission from Tex Fisher. Extracts of the book have been reproduced with thanks to Tex Fisher.