Lothario conductor in the sitcom 'On the Buses'
Friday 21 November 2003
Bob Grant, actor and writer: born London 14 April 1932; three times married; died Twyning, Gloucestershire 8 November 2003.
Bob Grant became known to millions as the lothario conductor, Jack, in one of British television's most popular sitcoms, On the Buses. With Reg Varney as the chirpy bus driver Stan Butler, he revelled in winding up the miserable inspector, "Blakey" (Stephen Lewis), at the Luxton and District Traction Company and flirting with the mini-skirted "clippies", some of whom were persuaded to take a trip to the top deck of the number 11 green double-decker between journeys to the local cemetery gates.
The comedy was vulgar, raucous and panned by the critics, but a popular success that attracted up to 16 million viewers over 73 episodes and two specials on television between 1969 and 1973, as well as spinning off into three films for the cinema. The first performed more successfully than any other British picture of 1971.
Grant, born in Hammersmith, west London, in 1932, trained at Rada, did his National Service with the Royal Artillery, then made his stage début as Sydney in Worm's Eye View at the Court Royal, Horsham, in 1952. Other repertory theatre work followed before his first London appearance, with the legendary Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in The Good Soldier Schweik, at the Duke of York's Theatre (1956).
Littlewood's company was formed as a "people's theatre" and had established a home in East London at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, where Grant subsequently acted Kitely in Everyman in His Humour (1960), Fred Jugg in Sparrers Can't Sing (1960, transferring to Wyndham's Theatre, 1961) and Mr Twigg in Big Soft Nellie (1961).
He took a starring role in the West End for two years and more than 500 performances when he played Mr Locke in the Lionel Bart musical Blitz! (Adelphi Theatre, 1962). Then, he wrote the book and lyrics for his own show, Instant Marriage (Piccadilly Theatre, 1964), with music by Laurie Holloway, before appearing in another Bart musical, Twang! (Shaftesbury Theatre, 1965).
During this time, Grant made his first film appearances. He acted Perce in Sparrows Can't Sing, the 1963 screen version of the Theatre Workshop play (written by his fellow Theatre Workshop actor Stephen Lewis, who was later to take the role of Inspector Blake in On the Buses), and he was in the zany Beatles film Help! (1965).
On returning to Theatre Workshop in 1967, Grant played the title role in Macbird, Constant in Intrigues and Amours and George Brown, Foreign Secretary in the Labour government of the time, in the play Mrs Wilson's Diary, written by Richard Ingrams and John Wells, which transferred to the West End (Criterion Theatre, 1967).
The new ITV company LWT commissioned a television version of Mrs Wilson's Diary, which was based on the satirical Private Eye feature about events through the eyes of the prime minister Harold Wilson's wife. Brown resigned as a government minister in March 1968 and Grant's portrayal of him in a state of alcoholic confusion (or, as the magazine had put it, being "tired and emotional") led to the television version being pulled from the schedules in November 1968, the offending scene being re-recorded and the play being screened two months later.
Then came On the Buses, created by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, and also produced by LWT. With Stephen Lewis, Grant also wrote 11 episodes of the sitcom and one special. The programme's success led to the film spin-offs On the Buses (1971), Mutiny On the Buses (1972) and Holiday On the Buses (1973), and its format was sold to the United States as Lotsa Luck.
So popular was the British original that when, in 1971, Grant married his third wife, Kim Benwell - whom he met when she was working as a cocktail waitress at Paul Raymond's Revuebar in Soho - the couple were greeted by such large crowds outside Caxton Hall Register Office in London that they had to walk to the reception and leave behind their hired Rolls-Royce and a double-decker bus intended for guests.
During the programme's long run, Grant and Lewis also wrote a BBC "Comedy Playhouse" pilot, The Jugg Brothers (1970), and starred in it as Robert and Stephen Jugg. Later, Grant scripted, with Anthony Marriott, Milk-O ("Comedy Premiere", 1975), another pilot in which he and Anna Karen (who played Olive in On the Buses) played a milkman and his wife. Neither was turned into a series.
The actor, who had appeared in the farce Pyjama Tops at the Whitehall Theatre in 1969, and toured Australia as Runnicles in No Sex, Please - We're British four years later, also wrote Package Honeymoon (in which he took the leading role of Jack in Eastbourne, 1974) and, with Anthony Marriott, Darling Mr London (also acting the Rev Mark Thompson on tour, 1975). He also appeared in the film version of the television sitcom Till Death Us Do Part (1969).
But, in the years after On the Buses, the actor suffered from depression as a result of lack of work and money. In 1987, during a spell of unemployment that followed a Christmas production of Cinderella in Redhill, Surrey, he went missing from his Leicestershire home and travelled to Dublin intent on suicide. He finally returned home to his wife but recalled:
For me the worst time was when the panto ended. To have a taste of what work could be like again, then to have that snatched away from me, was awful. All I could see was the empty months ahead, debts building up, no hope. I went into a black depression. I'd sit for hours with my head in my hands.
I felt that I was in a black room with no window and no door, and the walls were coming in towards me. I just felt like screaming. I knew I had to get out, get away. I wanted to die, and I decided to top myself.
Eight years later, Grant was treated for carbon monoxide poisoning after being found slumped unconscious over the steering wheel of a fume-filled car at Racton, near Chichester, West Sussex, where he was due to appear on stage. The actor, who subsequently moved with his wife to Gloucestershire, was found dead in a similar incident at his home.
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