The catchphrase “I ’ate you, Butler” was familiar to 16 million television viewers who regularly watched Stephen Lewis as Blakey in the raucous 1970s sitcom On the Buses. Miserable, petty and foul-tempered, Inspector Cyril Blake of the Luxton & District Traction Company was forever in conflict with one of his drivers, jack-the-lad Stan Butler (Reg Varney), and chirpy conductor Jack Harper (Bob Grant), who saw the No 11 bus as a route to attractive women. “Get that bus out!” and “I’ve got you this time, Butler!” were Lewis’s other most-used lines.
The actor himself developed the character in the comedy created by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney by taking the premise that Blakey must have once been an Army sergeant used to getting his own way. “Of course, now in civvy street, he couldn’t do that, so he was always frustrated,” explained Lewis. “These two blokes were skylarking about. It was an eternal battle between us.”
Although regarded by critics as vulgar, the programme was hugely popular and ran to seven series (1969-73) and three spin-off films, On the Buses (1971), Mutiny On the Buses (1972) and Holiday On the Buses (1973). The first was the highest-earning British picture of 1971.
Testament to how Lewis made Blakey a television institution came when he was given his own spin-off comedy, Don’t Drink the Water (1974-75), which saw the inspector retiring to a flat in Spain with his sister, Dorothy (Pat Coombs). However, it failed to catch on and Cyril Blake was completely retired after two series.
Lewis later transplanted the face-pulling misery of Blakey to Last of the Summer Wine when he was cast as Clem “Smiler” Hemmingway, for a one-off appearance in Roy Clarke’s long-running sitcom in 1988. He joined full-time two years later and stayed until 2007, three years before it finally ended, when ill health forced him to retire. “He’s quite a dour person whose laughs derive from the miserable time he’s having,” said Lewis of his character, who often helped Auntie Wainwright (Jean Alexander) at her bric-a-brac shop.
The actor was born in Poplar, east London, the son of Richard Lewis, a stoker in the Royal Navy, and his wife, Elizabeth (née Lawless). On leaving school, he went through various jobs – as an electrician’s mate, a bricklayer, a carpenter and a joiner – before joining the Merchant Navy.
Back on dry land, he started visiting Theatre Workshop, at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, where the director Joan Littlewood was giving a platform to working-class voices. He joined others in meeting her and the actors after performances and discussing the shows, leading her to invite him for an audition.
He made his debut with the company in Henry Chapman’s play You Won’t Always be on Top (1957), which led to a successful legal action by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office for offensive off-script language – and an impersonation of Winston Churchill opening a public toilet. However, the fines were derisible and only served to highlight a new era of freedom of expression in the arts and the dying days of censorship.
When Littlewood asked Lewis to appear in her next production, he said he had to return to sea. However, he later rejoined the company, acting under the name Stephen Cato in his early years. He appeared in The Hostage (1958), about the planned execution of an IRA member in a Belfast prison, which helped to establish the Irish playwright Brendan Behan’s reputation. Lewis made his London West End debut when it transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre.
He was himself motivated to write and came up with Sparrers Can’t Sing, a depiction of East Enders as he knew them. The play told the story of a cockney sailor coming home from sea to find his house razed and his wife living with a bus driver. It received great acclaim at the Theatre Royal in 1960, transferred to Wyndham’s the following year, and was adapted by Lewis for a 1963 film version as Sparrows Can’t Sing, featuring the Theatre Workshop cast. The New York Times described the “gabble of cockney” as incomprehensible, but The New Yorker acclaimed it as “a well-nigh perfect comedy”.
As a writer, Lewis branched out into television with two popular Armchair Theatre productions, Wagger (1963), in which he starred, and Always Ask for the Best (1964), set among East End shopkeepers. Later, he teamed up with Bob Grant – Jack in On the Buses – to write The Jugg Brothers (Comedy Playhouse, 1970). For Littlewood, Lewis also wrote Sweet Fanny Adams (1966), The Londoners (1972) – a musical version of Sparrers Can’t Sing – and Look Out, It’s Sir (1975).
On stage, Lewis played Inspector Trimfittering in the Theatre Workshop production of Mrs Wilson’s Diary (1967), based on Private Eye’s skit on events as seen by the Prime Minister’s wife. In 1969, he appeared in the television version, which also featured Grant.
Lewis’s later television sitcom roles included Royston Flagg, stage manager in a shabby 1940s seaside repertory company, in Rep (1982), and signalman Harry Lambert in Oh, Doctor Beeching! (pilot 1995, series 1996-97). He also appeared in sketches in The All New Alexei Sayle Show (1994-95) and Revolver (2001).
One of Lewis’s rare film roles was as a police officer in The Krays (1990), about the East End gangsters – who had made a cameo appearance in the film Sparrows Can’t Sing.
Lewis, who never married, was a lifelong Labour Party campaigner. He won the Variety Club Silver Heart in 1970.
Stephen Lewis, actor and writer: born London 17 December 1926; died London 12 August 2015.Reuse content