On the piano with Reg Varney
On the 88’s at Abbey Road,
Columbia SCX 6518,
In 1969, when Reg Varney landed the starring role in On the Buses, he was already 52 years old. Fair enough you may think. There are plenty of 52 year old bus drivers around. There’s probably one driving the 73 round the corner from you, an aged bitter curmudgeon with a distaste for human company and a penchant for watching old ladies falling over. Stan Butler though, the character Reg played, was no average 52 year old bus driver. For starters, even at his advanced age, he was still single and still living at home with his overbearing shrieking mother, dowdy retarded sister and idle sarcastic brother-in-law. Despite these gross impediments, he was still apparently something of a sex symbol down the bus depot, and pursued naive pretty girls young enough to be his grand-children, with an unhealthy and unsettling fervency. He was aided in this deviant sexual activity by his best friend Jack Harper, played by Bob Grant, a bus conductor whose startling horse-like appearance didn’t seem to be a barrier to menacing the bright young popsies in their short enticing skirts.
It must have been a terrifying prospect for any young attractive actress making a bid for stardom back in the 1970s. Fresh from their classical trading at RADA, how they must have dreaded their first big telly break consisting of five minutes of charmless grappling on a moth-eaten nylon sofa with the elderly dwarf Reg Varney, or the even more terrifying prospect of somehow snogging his deformed snaggle-toothed co-star. The likes of Bernard Bresslaw and Sid James may have been unlikely Lotharios in the Carry On films, but Reg and Bob stretched the credulity of the British public to breaking point with their gruesome romantic exploits.
On the Buses proved phenomenally successful despite all this, perhaps even because of it. The British public for some reason forgave the unlikely situation, the wafer-thin plots and the dreadful griping characters shouting their mirthless lines for all they were worth. Indeed it’s pretty fair to say they loved On the Buses! Feature film spin-offs from popular sitcoms were reasonably common at the time but On the Buses was popular enough for three cinematic films to be made. The first of the three was the top grossing British film of 1971, even managing to out-perform Diamonds Are Forever. But it didn’t stop there, oh no. Critics will record that 1972 was the year that The Godfather inexorably changed the face of modern cinema, but for most of the UK cinema goers it was the year that Stan and Jack sexually molested clippies in Mutiny on the Buses and as ever annoyed poor Inspector Blake.
Reg Varney, had of course, been around on the variety scene for many years before On the Buses made him a huge showbiz star. Performing since the 1930s, he had a long career that included a spell in a double act with Benny Hill, as well as a major role in the successful sitcom The Rag Trade. He was also an accomplished pianist and this record is very much a chance for Reg to show off his musical talents.
The album starts in breezy style with The Dark Town Strutters Ball, a pleasing romp through some jaunty musical numbers with a bit of genuine Varney banter thrown in for good measure. It is a gentle friendly way to lure the listener in as chatty Uncle Reg introduces his musicians Alf, George and Harry, all very much imaginary and sadly for them, they never appear again. The made up companions all serve to encourage the audience to enjoy the stomping rag time party that seems to be raging in Reg’s head.
Reg is at his best when he is tinkling away on the piano with genuine aplomb. He excels on tracks such as You Were Meant for Me and Laura for instance, the jolly piano romps matching perfectly Reg’s cockney singalong style. Where it goes wrong are the occasions when Reg for some reason feels the need to stretch his repertoire a bit and attempt to stake his claim as the world’s shortest opera star. On songs such as Together for instance, Reg seems highly uncomfortable while attempting to emit some rich tenor tones, and on If You Were the Only Girl in the World his attempts at romantic ballad crooning are simply stultifying rather than the hoped for sultry.
The two real standout tracks are Come on and Tickle My Fancy and Best Pair of Legs in the Business. Both tracks were taken from a 1968 ITV Playhouse episode, also called The Best Pair of Legs in the Business, written by Kevin Laffan. The darkly comic play seems to have resonated with Varney, its tale of Sherry Sheridan, a fading washed up variety star playing out a dismal drag act in a distinctly seedy holiday camp was genuinely haunting and elegiac. Two years after this record was made Reg returned to the play, adapting it for cinematic release in what proved to be his last major film role. Even Reg Varney didn’t make it through the last series of On the Buses when it shuddered to a spluttering halt in the summer of 1973. The drag act campness of Sherry Sheridan was far removed from the superannuated bluff macho laddishness of On the Buses and seems like a brave and deliberate attempt by Varney to shake off his Stan persona and leave the character of the sexually frustrated bus driver behind him.
In fact, the whole record seems like an attempt to avoid stereotyping. It is a bold statement by an established performer with a long and successful career, refusing to let his best known character overwhelm him in the twilight of his long career. The album is intended to showcase Reg Varney’s ability to sing and play the piano, and prove to the public that he was so much more than the bus driving chimp that On the Buses attempted to turn him into. It is not wholly successful in that respect, but it is however a really interesting musical showcase, and I would defy anyone not to fall in love with the glorious madness that is Come on and Tickle My Fancy. Resist no more though, there’s always room for one more on top. Ding ding!
More bus related nonsense can be found waiting patiently for a Number 73 at http://www.onthebusesfanclub.com/