On the Buses Review

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sharoma
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On the Buses Review

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Introduction

I recently completed a full watch of On the Buses (seven series plus three movies). I believe the show is more valuable for its historic rather than comedic content. Herodotus, the infamous Greek historian, is known as the Father of Lies, yet his material is still useful because we can find out what lies people told each other back then. On the Buses is a glimpse into a pivotal moment in British society. You’ll observe an accurate portrayal of how badly people treated each other when class was an issue, a crumbling country, the rise of individualism, a loss of civic virtue, an increase in cynicism, and most of all, horrendous treatment of women. This will not be a review which details each episode or even offers a critical overview of the writing. You can find episode summaries online and whether the show makes you laugh or not is down to your own tastes.

My Grandad worked in a bus depot for four decades and I can confirm that some of the attitudes seen in this show are accurate: he treated the depot and its equipment as his own personal Room of Requirement! I still possess his Public Service Vehicle Badge and am very proud of it.

Background

On the Buses was rejected by the BBC because they didn’t see the comedy potential of a bus depot setting. A rather moronic view considering good comedy is formed from excellent writing and effective comedic performances. The setting represents only the backdrop to the main themes of the show. I think this rejection by the BBC is the start of the class conflict this show represents. I love Dad’s Army, yet it shows the BBC was content to green-light a show which on paper is a bunch of old men messing around in the past. On the Buses presents a more vibrant and contemporary setting but because it is ‘resolutely working class’, it ended up on ITV instead, where critics (likely ones biased towards the BBC) panned it without mercy. The show remained very popular throughout its run, the movies were box office successes, and there are no doubt still millions of people the world over who appreciate the show’s unique charms.

On the Buses is set in the late 1960s and early 1970s in a fictitious Southern town called Luxton. The concern operating the bus service in the town is the Luxton and District Motor Traction Company, a wonderfully named reference to a past full of verbiage. It is important to bear in mind the state of British society by 1969 when the show begins. The postwar consensus was at the end of its tether; it was failing working people because their wages could no longer keep up with inflation (sound familiar?). Prosperity relative to the 1930s had been key to the outlook before 1965: people now had consumer goods such as telephones, televisions, and cars. They had full employment, enough to eat, and a national health service. Yet productivity and economic growth were stagnating in comparison to Germany, France, Japan, and Italy. The problem was not easy to diagnose. With full employment basically achieved, the threat of destitution had vanished (add to this some much needed protection in the 1965 Rent Act) and people began to look for increases in their wages to offset the food inflation which was beginning to occur. Throughout the 1960s there were attempts to reform Britain’s economic system, such as applying unsuccessfully to join the European Community, launching an ill-fated export drive, and discussing wage restraint. The latter would be a root cause of Thatcher’s election success in 1979.

The unions, each one guarding its own interests jealously, controlled much of British industry. The government needed their co-operation to run the country. Up until 1960 a sense of civic obligation had persuaded the unions to accept a slower rate of wage growth in return for the continuance of a welfare state. Since much industry, including transport, was nationalized, effectively the government had to pay for schools, hospitals, military, etc, from the same fund as they paid public sector workers. As Europe and Japan recovered beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (see Germany and Japan’s postwar ‘economic miracles’), and the USA continued to boom, British export markets shrunk year after year, forcing a devaluation of the currency. This led to a further increase in the price of food since at this time the UK relied on cheap imports from the Commonwealth. Joining Europe offered no solution to this problem since the Common Agricultural Policy was, and still is, set up to keep (French) farmers idle and wealthy at the expense of working class people’s rising food bills.

The problem with the government setting wages in a system where the market sets prices is obvious: people get poorer because wage growth never keeps up with inflation. The 1960s saw a rise of individualism and a casting off of old British social norms. With social relaxation came a loss off civic virtue, that willingness in people to sacrifice their own needs and pleasures for the greater good. This mentality lasted for about 15 years after the war. Here I will digress:

When we look at which films were most popular at the British box office from 1945-1960, it is war films. The main characters are always ‘war hero’ types, men like Kenneth More who are not especially stylish or original, yet their dogged determination, improvisation, and sacrifice wins the day. The young adults of the mid ‘60s were born after the war and were not at all interested in hearing about ‘war sacrifices’ and all the rest of it; this also explains how Dad’s Army was able to be made. Before 1968 the idea of mocking the war effort would upset most of society. The fashion was to lie about Britain’s role and continue the propaganda: Britain had won the war by implementing a supremely efficient economic system, inventing new technologies, and of course, by being ‘British’ with all the nationalistic nonsense that entails. The young adults of the ‘60s had this British Romanticism shoved down their throats for nearly two decades and they were ready to embrace individualism and a new future. Kenneth More barely got any work after 1962! People did not want the British officer type any more than they wanted to be paid less so that ‘everyone else’ could be alright. After all, there was no longer significant unemployment and there was a new mood of social freedom in the air.

By 1970, Britain was failing more than ever despite the hastily and ill-conceived government planning of the 1960s, which included large cuts to military spending as well as the currency devaluation and continued attempts to enter the European Community. Most importantly, the government wished to set up and utilize committees to control wages of unionized workers; at this time Britain still had significant manufacturing industry. The goal was the same as before: convince these workers to accept less money in order that the country could still afford the services its people were now used to. It is against this backdrop that the show begins.

Themes

The main themes of the show are as follows:

Working Class Family Life

Up to half of all scenes, if not more, are set in the Butler’s family home. This a modest and old fashioned terraced house. Although it has an indoor toilet (which breaks early on), it lacks central heating or a modern hot water system. They have a television and a telephone although the former is repossessed and the latter is cut off because they fall behind on payments. ‘Mum’ runs the house and performs all the necessary labour for her son, daughter, and son-in-law. In return the two men contribute to the housekeeping. Almost all the friction in the house revolves around poverty; there is never enough money to make ends meet. Stan and Arthur are constantly having to come up with schemes to keep the lights on and food on the table, despite them both working full time in the nationalized transportation industry. Mrs Butler has a daughter, Olive, who helps her mum whenever she is asked but struggles herself with poor self-esteem and abusive comments from her husband and brother.

Food is a main ingredient of the ‘family life’ scenes. We see what meals Mum prepares and how hungry Stan is each day when he returns home. We see how the meals decline in quantity and quality when money is short. We see appliances failing, decorating going wrong, heated arguments. Basically, it is a typical working class home with all the friction which scarcity and insecurity impose upon people.

Class Struggle: A Hatred and Mistrust of Anyone Above

The show has been described as ‘resolutely working class’ and this is because all the main characters are working class. We see occasional glimpses of the ‘management’ but this is rare. The main characters share these traits: they work low paid jobs, they did not attend higher education, they lack any social connections, they are poor, they are abused and exploited by the people above them. Any time a non-working class person is portrayed, it is in a very negative light. The management are cruel and sadistic, lacking any sympathy at all with the workers. The Inspector is the show’s primary pariah yet he is working class as well – any negativity towards him is directed at his desire to ‘boss’ people around and assert a moral and class superiority he does not have. He is the typical working class crawler, obsequious to a management which despises him the same as it despises the drivers and conductors.

The ‘civic virtue’ of Britain which was dead by 1970 is a euphemistic way to describe deference. Working class people were beaten down and forced into slums for two centuries, and bombarded with shameful literature about how inferior they were to their social betters. Even as recently as 2018 I witnessed first hand in a factory setting how British workers are trained from birth to view people from higher classes as superior and worthy of jobs they themselves could never attain. By the time of On the Buses this class deference is still present but it is rapidly disappearing. Blakey will still salute the manager and act completely different towards him than he does to the workers. The workers themselves will often defer to the Inspector but only because they fear his taking their livelihood away. Mostly they mock him to his face and behind his back. Deference is dying and that’s a good thing.

Intimidation by management and inspectors leaves a poor taste in the mouth. As usual, it is hard to imagine such a state of affairs in any other country but Britain. Britain is a country where the managers and workers rarely interacted, even inside work, and experienced radically different experiences in upbringing and education. This intimidation justifies the stealing and skiving that goes on. The mentality of all classes in the country is very much ‘us’ and ‘them’.

Multi Generation Families in the Same House

The Butler family make the best of what they have and of course, it is Stan’s mum who holds everything together. She is the unheralded hero of the show. Although she is old with two adult children, and widowed, her outlook is usually one of positivity. She works hard day after day to keep her family fed on a meagre budget. She is always sympathetic to her children, especially Olive, with whom she has an adorable mother-daughter dynamic. In the film series, Arthur and Olive have a baby boy but still cannot afford to leave the home. Thus, three generations inhabit the Butler house. Even if they could afford to leave, they refuse to leave Mrs Butler; she, after all, cannot afford to live on her own.

Unhappy Marriages and a Lack of Divorce Rights for Women

The most displeasing and unpleasant aspect of the show is also one of the most realistic. Olive is treated horrendously by her husband and brother. They constantly mock her, to the point that I would describe it as serious and sustained mental abuse. Their marriage is unhappy and the only affection Arthur shows to Olive is fuelled by alcohol. He and Stan mock her weight and eating habits at least three times per episode. Her mother often defends her but outside the house she is treated just as badly, since Blakey and Harper will join in. All four men are hardly lookers themselves yet feel they have the right to objectify and publicly humiliate Olive. In the final series, Arthur and Olive divorce and the former is never seen again. The instructions given to Olive before she enters the divorce court are beyond infuriating. It basically boils down to this: if you look haggard and unattractive, Arthur is correct to leave you. If you make yourself into a desirable sexual object for the judge’s eyes, it will be seen as Arthur’s fault. The way the women accept and work within this sorry state of affairs is tragic and its relevance may have been lost to most people at the time.

Sexist Attitudes and the Objectification of Women

This is where there is great crossover with the Carry On series of films. On the Buses reflects the apparent permissive society of the time with constant, and I mean constant, objectification of any female. Female bus conductors do not get such an esteemed title; they are merely clippies, there for drivers and passengers to ogle, molest, and pursue with all the grace and consideration of a rabid dog. The three films step this up to an even higher degree, no doubt for the cinema goer’s titillation. It is a major weak point of the show, yet it reflects accurately attitudes and practices of the time. Women are sexual objects, nothing more. When they cease to become attractive, they are either invisible, open to mockery, or have to settle down to the domestication role and produce clean clothes, food, a tidy home, until they die. The first film left me with a dark feeling. The company decides to hire female bus drivers and the men conspire to sabotage the women with all manner of cruel and sexist tricks. It highlights how not only different classes in Britain do not co-operate, it’s the men and women too. The men refuse to let go of their power and their response to Second-wave feminism is to fight back, hard. They double down and learn absolutely nothing.

There is an episode in which the family is forced to take in a lodger and a man of higher social class arrives. The combination of male objectification of women and upper class objectification of working class people results in an overload: he is intent on raping Olive in her own home.

Lack of Respect for Work: Theft and Skiving as Common Practice

Like Only Fools & Horses, this show differs from the comedies set in the North. Northern writers, or writers sympathetic to the North, will go to great lengths to portray Northerners as hard done-to, hard working, and generally kind and brilliant people. John Sullivan’s great failure was to portray Del as a selfish schemer, a thief, a manipulator, a gas lighter, and an abuser. He is a horrendously bad person and the reason he does what he does is because he is work-shy. He is not willing to ‘degrade’ himself like his fellow workers and so he embarks on a life which involves ripping off the same workers by selling them cheap, stolen, or defective goods. He considers himself ‘too good’ to work. His friends are likewise portrayed badly: Boyce is a scumbag who has no loyalty even to his friends and Trigger is unintelligent beyond compare.

On the Buses shows how Stan and Jack have almost no work ethic. They are late every day, they take the bus out when they want, they drive by passengers, they get to the turn around point early so they can skive (or have sex with women), they steal, they cheat, and they generally hate their working lives. They have no pride in their appearance or uniforms, nor do they respect their equipment, the depot, or the buses themselves. This is a good representation of how the government, the management, and the aristocracy view working people. It reinforces the disdain they have for them.

Inflation and the Constant Problem of Low Wages

Stan works as a busman. He drives a bus for at least two shifts of indeterminate length per day and lives with his mother, sister, and brother-in-law. They are constantly low on money. He is always looking for overtime or to save money by scrimping on some necessary object or task. The simple fact is that his wage is not a living wage. He cannot afford his own place. His mother cannot even afford for him to move out because her own pension is insufficient. The family doesn’t own a car and can barely afford to keep their aged motorbike and sidecar in operation. Arthur works as a ticketing clerk for British Rail and also remarks that once his housekeeping contribution is handed over, he barely has any money, even for cigarettes.

Dereliction and Crumbling of the Physical Society

By 1969 New Jerusalem has hit its high water mark and is about to retreat rapidly in the decade before Thatcherism begins to vandalize everything that was built up. On the Buses, especially the colour episodes and films, is valuable for the background of its outdoor shots. You can see clearly the physical society the postwar governments had tried to build. The new council estates are starting to age, the bright paint is fading, the neat hedges becoming overgrown. The streets, still tidy compared to today, are starting to fill up with litter. The depot itself, perhaps modern and spacious in 1945, looks very tired and run down, like an Edwardian service station, complete with an antiquated clocking in machine which wouldn’t look out of place in a 19th century textile mill. The Butler family home is likewise antiquated and in dire need of at least decorating; the family attempt this miserably in one episode.

Significant to me, having observed in my own lifetime the lack of respect people have for public works, is the rise of hooliganism and the associated vandalism. Or rather, the attitude that this is now normal and to be expected. In Mutiny on the Buses, a bus stop is accidentally knocked over and destroyed. Jack casually remarks that they can blame it on hooligans as there is a lot of that going around lately. Although the character isn’t aware of the prescience of his words, later audiences are. The 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s would see vandalism of bus shelters become the new norm. I spent ages 12 to 22 in Middleton, Manchester, a violent and rundown place. I observed weekly the same glass bus shelter being smashed up and replaced until the company gave up and stopped putting a shelter in. Now, because of some vandals, old people have to stand in the rain to catch a bus. Nothing is ever done to address the multitude of social ills which leads to people having such frustration and contempt for their own home that they wish to smash it all up. In the show we see a clock in machine, with no lock, sited on a normal street. This represents the turn around point for the bus and upon reaching it, Jack leaps out to use the machine. I have never seen such a machine in real life because by the time I was a child, they didn’t exist. Today, it would be stolen or smashed up the very same evening of its installation. It is sad to see how the state tried to build a functioning society, only for ill conceived social policies and entrenched privilege to leave people alienated, poor, and angry.

Surprisingly, we can also look to A Clockwork Orange for a representation of this collapse in social virtue. Ballard states that upon his return to Britain around 1960, he observed youths spilling out of late night coffee bars to begin a night of menace and destruction; these youths having been born after the war and therefore not part of the great sacrifice. British Romanticism was never going to be enough to inculcate in the young a respect for their society. Only a revolution in the class system could have accomplished this. Cynicism and a feeling of hopelessness manifest as vandalism and violence.

Sexual Liberalization

Before 1964 you simply could not portray sex on TV in any form (the Steptoe and Son episode "Sunday for Seven Days", which aired 16 January 1964, features nudity). Within a mere five years On the Buses has close up shots under women’s miniskirts and the men frothing at the mouth to chase them down. The over-correction is clear to see and must have amused some European countries. In some episodes Stan and Jack appear so sex-starved that they verge on sexual assault or outright rape; but of course back then its not that at all! It’s just good fun. Sexual liberalization back then actually meant that men now had even fewer reasons to control themselves in public. Just observe Jack ogling a woman walking up the stairs on his bus and then the glee in his eyes as he decides to follow her. Like the Carry On films, the show attempts to capitalize on the mood of the times but it just comes across as crude postcard humour, dated and stuck in the distant past. The men have the exact same attitudes towards women as they did before, only now they can express it more freely.

Smoking, Drinking, new Health Foods and Mentalities

The curse of alcoholic drinks, non-alcoholic drinks, and smoking! Of course, many of the characters smoke. Olive and Arthur smoke at the dinner table. Jack smokes constantly. Stan sometimes smokes. They smoke in the depot in front of No Smoking signs. They throw their butts on the floor anywhere they like. They drink alcohol whenever they can and even conspire for a drunken Stan to avoid termination by sabotaging his Breathalyzer test. Tea is also a constant source of refreshment, as it is in any similar comedy from the time. Bear in mind that the tea or coffee break is enshrined in working class life, not least because it keeps workers energetic without dulling their senses. Caffeine is the perfect drug for an industrial society. Alcohol serves as social lubrication and sadly, it’s the only time we see Arthur being affectionate towards Olive.

In some episodes we hear talk of new health fads, usually gleaned from the newspaper. This shows how a new ‘health’ craze was about to begin. Suddenly you could now buy ‘organic’ food and people were considering fruit for breakfast instead of the high fat emulsified offal tube (the BBC Play for Today Nuts in May takes this new ‘health man’ to an obsessive and hilarious extreme).

Principal Characters

Stan is not particularly impressive in any way whatsoever and represents the ‘every man’, the Homer Simpson, the lazy, barely useful worker who is constantly suffering bad luck and punishment. He can be very selfish and will deceive his own mother. He doesn’t work hard. He’s always late and badly turned out. He steals and generally always gets it wrong. He isn’t a bad person, he’s just a person in a bad system. However, he never takes responsibility for his life or actions and refuses to grow or investigate new ways of treating women.

Jack is ostensibly Stan’s best friend, yet this friendship is conditional. When Stan, in need of more money, tries to better himself by becoming an inspector, Jack shuns him cruelly and turns everyone against him. Yet when Jack himself becomes an inspector, he turns on Stan and kowtows to Blakey! Jack is dishonest and scruffy. He is a thief, a liar, and a cheat. He has no respect for women and is only interested in his own immediate physical satisfaction. He is rude to passengers and even steals their fares to fund his gambling habit: by stealing fares he is stealing from the company and therefore the nation, and compromising investment in the future. He is a terrible person. Despite his own very poor dental hygiene (you often see black around his prominent teeth), he still has the nerve to attack Olive’s appearance every time he sees her. Perhaps he is a repellant character to reduce how much we should listen to him: Jack has one of the most profound lines in the series when, after being asked if they really should be stealing, he says "It's not our fault, the system drives us to it."

Olive is a lovely person. She has had a raw deal in life but she maintains a cheery outlook. Her main friend is her mother and they spend all day together, travel together, share the cooking and cleaning, and generally have a very wholesome and sweet relationship. This is a classic working class dynamic I have observed in my life. My own mother was very close to my grandmother; they spoke every day and they were great friends. The support Mum offers Olive is life-saving. Without it, Olive would only ever be abused. Olive’s marriage is unhappy. She hasn’t been able to get pregnant (see below for canon differences), hold down a job, or make any friends. She comfort eats because she is depressed. She is clearly sexually frustrated as every time she wishes to be intimate with Arthur, he casts her aside with an insult. Nevertheless she keeps trying and it becomes increasingly upsetting to see her constantly rejected.

Arthur is not a nice man. Although one of my favourite characters in terms of humour, he can be horrendously rude to his wife and her relatives. He constantly shames Olive for being fat or ugly (no sexual capital means she is not a person, remember?), despite himself being nothing much to look at! He has the nerve to even attack his own mother-in-law. He is stingy with money and sometimes steals Stan’s cigarettes. He has an aura of superiority and clearly sees himself as above his family. He hilariously describes his job (British Rail ticketing clerk) as requiring high intelligence. He looks down his nose on people but is just as easily swayed by the temptations of drink, gambling, and flirting with women. In one episode he even chats up and buys drinks for a woman in front of his wife and mother-in-law. Olive sometimes fights back and mocks his ‘operation’, the details of which are left obscure but perhaps mean he is now infertile. Once he’s been humiliated about this, he usually shuts up.

Blakey, the Inspector, can be cruel to the people below him, but he isn’t really unfair. He simply wants them to do the job they were hired for and because Jack is the union shop steward, he cannot fire either of them even when they perform their roles consistently poorly and steal from the company. He is caught in between pressure from the management above, who disdain him as lower class, and the workers below, who disdain him as a class traitor. Blakey’s character is explained finally in series seven when we meet his mother, an intensely cruel and overbearing person. Blakey gets a very bad rap; he is not a bad person. He is capable of being very caring and kind. For instance, when he returns from his fishing trip he gifts Stan the only fish he managed to catch. This, after Stan had spent the whole episode deceiving him. Often when Stan appeals to Blakey about his family’s poverty, Blakey will empathize. Blakey is also the least racist character. We find out he served in India during the war and picked up the language, as well as respect for the culture. He is the only one in the depot who treats the Indian canteen lady with respect, even bowing and addressing her in her own language. Blakey too suffers from poverty. Despite being an inspector, he can only rent a rundown room in the town and can’t afford any motorized transport.

Mum. The sheer lack of respect for the matriarch in this universe is highlighted by the fact that Stan’s mum is only ever referred to as ‘Mum’ or ‘Stan’s Mum’ – she is an appendage to a male, her own son, much as in the world of Fundamentalist Islam. She doesn’t have a name. She is consigned to a life of being Mum and all that entails: the often thankless task of caring for everybody else until she dies. Blakey and others sometimes address her as Mrs Butler, in honour of her husband; this is the only time she isn't 'Mum'. She often has little freak outs but overall you cannot help but like her. She has a positivity that is hard to ruin. She also loves her children unconditionally and this shows. Her love of Stan is to be expected, as mothers usually dote on sons, even ones unworthy of it. It’s her relationship with Olive, as previously mentioned, which most warms the heart. The female solidarity in the face of a cruel man’s world is represented by their unbreakable bond.

Notes

Ironically, considering the working class and confrontational nature of the show, a Colour strike affected series 4.

The catchy and irrepressible theme tune to the second film, Mutiny on the Buses, bears a strong resemblance to "Casanova Baciami", a 1962 hit in Germany for Petula Clark.

There is a black character in the show who is referred to as 'Chalky'. This is normalized racism and was common on television during the 20th century.

After Stan leaves to work in a northern car factory, he still sends Mum his dirty laundry!

Canon differences

The three films are set in a slightly different universe. Arthur and Olive have a baby boy, the family home is different, the depot is different, the badge numbers of Jack and Stan are different, and the company is called simply Town & District Bus Company, rather than Luxton & District’. The buses are also red, not green. Some of these changes were likely made to make the films easier to sell in America.

Critical Reception

TV reviewer Victor Lewis-Smith later criticized the then head of London Weekend Television, Frank Muir, for green-lighting the programme, which Lewis-Smith called "the wretched On the Buses".

Victor Lewis-Smith was the son of a neurosurgeon and clearly a humourless cretin.

The Guardian's David Stubbs referred to On the Buses as "a byword for 70s sitcom mediocrity".

David Stubbs went to Oxford and obviously has never known anything but easy work and privilege.

Middle and upper class writers of British publications, hailing as they usually do from the Eton sewer which spills into the Oxbridge cesspool, simply don't get it. On the Buses brought simple pleasure to millions, but this would never be relevant in their eyes because they disdain the lower classes and seek to control British humour. The fact that the show was so popular only hardened their opinions against it. This highlights once again how class conflict dominates every aspect of British society, from the family home, to the workplace, to the TV shows, the comedy writing, and finally and most infuriatingly, the imbeciles who control the critical press.

I heartily recommend On the Buses as a learning experience in social history and simple comedy writing.

Rating: 8/10
Robin Sharrock
www.sharoma.com
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