Reg Varney: Comic actor and entertainer who found fame in 'On The Buses'

Tuesday 18 November 2008 01:00

The bus driver Stan Butler in On The Buses was the former variety artist Reg Varney's most famous screen role. The cheery-faced, 5ft 5in star, who steered the No 11 to the cemetery gates and through 73 television programmes, made Stan one of the small screen's most popular comedy characters at the turn of the 1970s.

"I 'ate you, Butler," his boss Blakey would intone, often followed by: "Get that bus out!" The comedy was raucous and, although panned by the critics, On The Buses regularly attracted audiences of up to 16 million and became one of ITV's longest-running sitcoms.

In On The Buses, created by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, the chirpy bachelor Stan was also seen at home, sparring with his plain sister Olive (Anna Karen), his idle, slow-burning brother-in-law Arthur (Michael Robbins) and his domineering, widowed mother (Cicely Courtneidge, replaced after the first series by Doris Hare) just as keenly as with his miserable inspector, Blake (Stephen Lewis), at the Luxton Bus Company. "I'll get you, Butler," was a constant threat from the incensed inspector. Stan's only ally was the lothario conductor, Jack (Bob Grant), and together they were the bane of Blakey's life.

Varney drove the bus himself but was not allowed to carry fare-paying passengers. Although considered vulgar by some, the sitcom was rarely outside the Top 10 of television's most watched programmes. Varney and his co-stars made seven series between 1969 and 1973 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, and the television series' format was sold to America as Lotsa Luck.

Born in Canning Town, in London's East End, the son of a tyre factory worker, Varney started performing as a child, dressed as a Russian gypsy and playing "Tiger Rag" on the piano, after teaching himself to play by ear. He was a singer, pianist and accordion player in working men's clubs at the age of 14, earning 8s 6d (421/2p) a night plus 1s 6d (71/2p) for each encore, and went on to sing with big bands.

He also played piano at cinemas in the days of silent films, graduated to Collins' Music Hall and, in 1938, became pianist at the Windmill Theatre, London, which was famous for its girlie revues and as a starting ground for some of the great stand-up comedians.

During the Second World War Varney served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a sheet-metal worker, but he kept up his interest in entertainment by organising concert parties and performing with Stars In Battledress on a tour of the Far East. Once peace came, he developed his act in music hall and summer shows, with Benny Hill as his "gormless" stooge. Varney began to make a name for himself, but promises of film fame never materialised and, while Hill went on to become a star in his own right, Varney had to continue working on the variety circuit for 15 years before wider success came to him.

In 1961, he landed the role of foreman-cutter Reg in The Rag Trade (1961-3), Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney's first television sitcom. It was a union satire that arrived on television in the wake of the classic British film comedy I'm All Right, Jack. Reg, usually seen with tape measure in hand, tried to help his boss, the hapless but conniving Mr Fenner (Peter Jones), to keep the belligerent shop steward, Paddy (Miriam Karlin), in check at Fenner Fashions' dressmaking workshop.

Along with Karlin's regular shout of "Everybody out!", Varney's comedy timing was one of The Rag Trade's attractions and it was an instant hit. By the time the programme ended, after three series and 35 episodes, Reg was contemplating marriage to the machinist Judy (Barbara Windsor).

Varney followed it with two series of the children's programme The Valiant Varneys, playing his own supposed ancestors, and three series of another situation-comedy, Beggar My Neighbour (1967-8), which had begun as a single BBC "Comedy Playhouse" presentation in 1966, written by Ken Hoare and Mike Sharland. He and Pat Coombs acted Harry and Lana Butt, whose neighbours in Muswell Hill, north London, were Gerald and Rose Garvey, played by Peter Jones (later Desmond Walter-Ellis) and June Whitfield. Even though Lana and Rose were sisters, the two families were constantly at war through 22 episodes of the sitcom, mainly because Gerald was a broke junior executive while fitter Harry splashed his money around.

Varney had previously appeared in the cinema in Miss Robin Hood (1952) and with co-starring roles in the comedies Joey Boy (1965) and The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966). New-found stardom brought him more big-screen roles, as a waiter taking refuge in a film studio while on the run from gangsters in Go for a Take (1972) and as the ageing holiday camp drag artist "Sherry" Sheridan in The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1972), which Kevin Laffan had originally written for Varney as a "Sunday Play" on TV (1968).

However, he found it difficult to live down Stan Butler. The characters he met while buying fish at Billingsgate Market inspired him to create the sitcom Down the Gate (1975-76), written by Roy Tuvey and Maurice Sellar, in which he played porter Reg Furnell. The first series was a regular in the Top 10, but was less popular during its second run. Varney later appeared in a TV remake of Eric Sykes's wordless comedy The Plank (1979).

"Whatever I did after On The Buses, nobody wanted to know about it," the star once told me. "But I can't knock the programme because it brought me offers to do concert tours in Australia, New Zealand and Canada."

Varney performed his cabaret act in those countries, making annual visits to Australia, but he was forced into retirement in 1989 following a stroke, which left him with an uneven heartbeat. Eight years earlier, he had suffered a heart attack. During his convalescence then he learned to paint in oils and, living a quiet life in Devon, he enjoyed producing landscapes.

Following a decade off screen, Varney made two brief comebacks, in the "Tonight at 8.30" play Red Peppers (1991), and Marital Bliss (1995), in "Paul Merton's Life of Comedy" series. He also had the distinction of being the first person in the world to use an ATM cash dispenser, in 1967, when he performed the opening ceremony at Barclays Bank in Church Street, Enfield, Middlesex. His autobiography, The Little Clown, recounting his early years, was published in 1990.

Anthony Hayward

Reginald Alfred Varney, actor: born London 11 July 1916; married 1939 Lilian Flavell (deceased; one daughter); died Budleigh Salterton, Devon 16 November 2008.

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