Best known and most loved in his role as the cheeky chappie Cockney bus driver in the ITV series ‘On the Buses‘, Varney starred in most of the series’ 74 episodes and each of the three spin-off films (the first in the series – ‘On the Buses’ – was more successful at the British box office at the time than the then current James Bond movie, ‘Diamonds are Forever’). In the series, Stan Butler (Varney) worked as a bus driver for the Luxton & District Traction Company. Starring as an eligible bachelor, Butler lived at home with his bingo-loving, widowed and overbearing mother (Cicely Courtneidge, later Doris Hare), his frumpy (and iconic) sister, Olive (Anna Karen), and his lazy brother in law, Arthur (Michael Robbins). The bane of Stan’s life was the hapless and increasingly neurotic bus Inspector, Cyril “Blakey” Blake (Stephen Lewis), whose job it was to check up on Butler and his conductor and best friend, the cheerful, bucktoothed Jack Harper (Bob Grant).
Across the spectrum of the different episodes, Blakey often threatened them with the sack for lateness and untidiness as well as a whole host of other things. Given that the series aired in the 1970s, there was probably no coincidence whatsoever that Blakey sported a short toothbrush moustache very much in the image of Adolf Hitler. His catchphrases of “I hate you Butler!” and “You’ve made my day” maintain a warmth and resonance with those – like myself – of a certain age.
Born in Canning Town in the East End of London to a working- class family, Varney’s father was a semi-skilled tyre-factory worker, who encouraged his son’s ambitions. However, it is alleged that he also once told the young Varney’s uncle not to applaud him when he was doing a music-hall routine at home, or the boy might “start to behave silly”. Interestingly, close friends of Varney have recalled how he was rarely ever ‘silly’ except of course for professional purposes. Indeed, despite his public cheeky chappie persona, he later confessed to having to psych himself up before going on stage and screen.
Having, like so many of his peers at the time, entered into show-business via the music halls, Varney turned to television once he realised that his comedy routines were decreasingly in demand. Struggling at first to highlight his comedy potential to a variety of television producers, he employed that other well known 70s comedy legend, Benny Hill as his straight man in a music-hall double act. Still struggling to find a break, when a few years later he was driving back from Scotland having tried once more to reinvigorate his one-man show, Varney saw Hill’s name on a show placard in huge letters. Whilst never begrudging Hill his success, he told friends at the time that if things did not get better soon he would leave show-business altogether and run a pub.
‘On the Buses’ gave Varney that break and with it came fame. Exported all around the world the only apparent corner of the world where it wasn’t a success was on the east coast of the United States where his Cockney accent was alleged to mystify viewers. Without doubt, ‘On the Buses’ was and indeed will remain an icon of British television in the 1970s; an icon of British comedy; and in the character of Stan Butler, Varney will always be remembered as an iconic British comedy character.
‘I hate you Butler’: definitely not.