Reginald Alfred 'Reg' Varney was an English actor, most notable for his role as a cheerful Cockney bus driver in the 1970s TV sitcom On the Buses.
For ten years he lived at Dark Lane House on picturesque Dark Lane in Budleigh Salterton, seen above. Millions of television viewers remember him with affection. He has been described as belonging to the old school of comedians, with his dislike of much contemporary television and his pride in never using swear words to get a laugh.
Varney was born on 11 July 1916 in Canning Town, which was then part of Essex but is now part of East London. His father worked in a rubber factory in Silvertown and he was one of five children who grew up in Addington Road, Canning Town. He was educated at the nearby Star Lane Primary School in West Ham and after leaving school at 14, he worked as a messenger boy at the Regent Palace Hotel, pictured above.
Above right: A Windmill Theatre poster. The first 'Revudeville' act opened in 1932. The shows only became profitable when the Lord Chamberlain, in his position as the censor for all theatrical performances in
Varney took piano lessons as a child and was good enough to find employment as a part-time piano player. His first paid engagement was at Plumstead Radical Club in Woolwich, singing and playing the accordion, for which he was paid eight shillings and sixpence (42½p). He also played in working men's clubs, pubs and ABC cinemas, and later sang with big bands of the time. He and his mother decided that show business was the career for him, and he gave up his day jobs. For a time he worked as the resident pianist at the Windmill Theatre in Soho with its all-nude revues.
During World War II, he joined the Royal Engineers, but continued performing as an army entertainer, touring the Far East for a time. After being demobbed, he starred on stage in the late 1940s in a comic revue entitled Gaytime. His partner in the double act was Benny Hill. He then went on to become an all-round entertainer, working his way around the music halls.
In 1961, Varney was given the role of the clothing cutter and foreman Reg Turner in the popular television sitcom, The Rag Trade, which made him a household name. The cast included rising stars like Barbara Windsor, Miriam Karlin and Sheila Hancock, along with established film actors such as Peter Jones and Esme Cannon.
Also around this time he starred in a show for BBC TV called The Seven Faces of Reg Varney where he performed seven different characters in front of an audience at the Shepherd's Bush Theatre in London. Varney rushed about at a frantic pace on stage as he changed clothes between characters. After that followed another comedy role in Beggar My Neighbour; this also starred Pat Coombs, June Whitfield, and Peter Jones. Pat Coombs played the wife of Varney's character and she would later appear in the On the Buses movie. The series ran from March 1967 to March 1968 (24 episodes of 30 minutes' duration) and a short special was shown as part of Christmas Night with the Stars on 25 December 1967.
On 27 June 1967, the world's first voucher based cash dispensing machine was installed at the Enfield Town branch of Barclays Bank. Varney lived in Enfield at the time and for publicity purposes he was photographed making the first withdrawal from the machine.
In 1968 he appeared in a TV play The Best Pair of Legs in the Business, playing the role of 'Sherry' Sheridan the drag artist-cum-compère past his prime at a caravan holiday site. Unusually for Varney it was a part marked by pathos rather than comedy and drew praise from writers including John Osborne and Harold Pinter, proof that he had considerable talent as a straight actor. It's been said that such a role would have puzzled his fans but for his most devoted admirers this is hardly true. "An entertainer at the end of his career but who tries to kid himself he can return to the big time," is how the On the Buses Fan Club sees the play. "It is about how his life revolves around the need to perform even though it is a dreary caravan park. It is about having hope when there is no hope. A sad comedy that sees Reg Varney giving a brilliant performance."
Varney's greatest success was in the sitcom On the Buses which was written by Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe, who had also written The Rag Trade. The series ran for 76 episodes from February 1969 to May 1973. Varney played the lead role of bus driver Stan Butler, a long-suffering but loyal man who never has much luck where romance is concerned and is always pitting his wits against Blakey, the neurotic bus inspector with the Luxton & District Traction Company.
Varney took his acting seriously. In his autobiography, The Little Clown he describes one humiliating episode early in his career which he blames on the applause and flattery that he had enjoyed and which had made him "self-opinionated, smug, cocky and swollen-headed". A moment of truth came at a club in Kennington when the audience greeted in silence his over-confident rendition of 'Chapel in the Moonlight', a song of which he had failed to learn the words.
With The Rag Trade he had been aware that he was the only cast member without West End experience and worked hard to remedy any deficiencies. For On the Buses he went as far as taking bus-driving lessons and gained an HGV licence so that he could be filmed actually driving a bus on the open road. It was also a testament to his acting abilities that he was able to play so convincingly the role of the somewhat immature Stan Butler while in his mid-fifties.
There were also three spin-off movies made, On the Buses (1971), Mutiny on the Buses (1972), and Holiday on the Buses (1973). Varney was 53 when the series started, although his character, who lived at home and was often trying to attract women, seemed to be in his mid-thirties. Stephen Lewis, who played Inspector Cyril 'Blakey' Blake in the series, was actually 20 years younger than Varney, who, by the time On the Buses ended, was 57.
The show was a hit both in the UK and abroad, being shown in 35 countries. At its height it boasted 16 million viewers. But Varney left part-way through the final seventh series as he felt the series had run its course and was beginning to decline in standard.
Reg always enjoyed acting in films. His first film role had been with Margaret Rutherford in Miss Robin Hood (1952) and he had also appeared in comic roles in films including Joey Boy (1965) and as Gilbert in The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966). Films in which he now appeared included Go for a Take (1972) and The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1972), a film version of the 1968 play. In spite of the praise that he earned for his performance as 'Sherry' the film was not properly marketed and flopped. This was followed by Down the Gate (1975-76), in which he played the Billingsgate fish porter Reg Furnell, but it was not a great success. He was also in the remake of the film The Plank (1979).
From April to June 1969 Varney co-starred with Scottish entertainer Billy Raymond in 15 episodes of Australia's Channel O TV entertainment series Rose and Crown before returning to appear in yet another On the Buses series.
He also made six hour-long spectaculars called The Other Reg Varney, and later his cabaret act toured Australia, New Zealand and Canada. In 1988, On the Buses went on to the stage and again Varney went to Australia to play Stan.
During the 1990s, Varney was forced to retire because of health problems. He had had a heart attack in 1965 and in 1981 he had suffered a more severe one. Subsequently he divided his time between his home in a small village near Dartmouth and a villa in Malta.
Varney moved to East Devon in the late 1990s. A former resident of Dark Lane remembers him at a party where he was in his element, surrounded by admiring females. But he was devoted to his wife during their 63 years of marriage and much of his time in Budleigh was spent caring for her when she became ill.
He was a talented artist, having learnt to paint during his convalescence, and enjoyed painting landscapes in oils like the one shown here; there were several exhibitions of his work locally.
His autobiography, The Little Clown, was published in 1990 and is described as "touching" and "honest" for its insight into his early acting background.
He 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 lived alone following the death at the age of 87 of his wife Lilian in Budleigh Salterton in 2002. Her grave is in St Peter's Burial Ground.
Varney died aged 92 in Pinewood Nursing Home in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, on 16 November 2008, after suffering a chest infection. His ashes were scattered by private arrangement with his family. He was survived by his daughter Jeanne Marley along with two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Reg Varney's contribution to British TV and film comedy will be remembered for generations to come, with admirers joining sites such as the On the Buses Fan Club and http://www.onthebuses.net/forum/ There will no doubt be a further revival of interest in his career with the forthcoming centenary of his birth.
Picture credits: http://www.southallfilmstudios.com/
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