It’s that time of year again where tradition dictates that British Bank Holiday television will be awash with screenings of Carry On Films, and On the Buses. It’s a bizarre tradition when you think about it given how strange and outdated many of the films seem today. And yet, and I say this without the slightest bit of irony, it’s a tradition I know and love all too well.
Today the films have come under heavy criticism for their less than politically correct stance on life. A hark back to a pure Britain that never was, started in part by Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios in post-war comedies such as Passport to Pimlico (1949), for many they represent the kind of “make Britain great again” group think that propels the likes of Brexit — sidenote: if there ever was a film that proves to us why Brexit will never work, it’s Passport to Pimlico; but alas this is another story for another day. Through Carry On, into the sixties and seventies, British comedy in film became all the more grotesque, sex-based, and bawdy, while still relying largely on the picture presented by Balcon — although Balcon’s comedy was much more innocent and sexless; sexuality in films made him uncomfortable and was never a part of his own vision — representing “more carefree times” where men could be men, women could be women, and sex was apparently founded on the saucy double entendre often illustrated on vintage seaside postcards.
There’s more to it though. I don’t think I would continue to be attracted to these films if there wasn’t. I have pulled off the shackles in many areas of my own personal nostalgia because I don’t think it’s enough to just continue a passion if there’s nothing to it other than warm memories. When it comes to On the Buses though (and indeed parts of the Carry On series), it’s another story. On the surface On the Buses seems like tasteless sexist twaddle which belongs back in the dark ages, but scratch a bit further and what we really have is an incredibly bleak and perverse landscape racked with fear and anxiety about the changing times with some really interesting commentary on social class. Not everyone shares my sentiment though. The films are often seen as so tasteless they are continually rejected by even the most ardent Hammer Studio fans (Hammer, although more associated with horror film, were the driving force behind the production of these). Not me though. I find them every bit as fascinating as warped Southern Gothic when it comes to family dynamics; even more horrific than some of Hammer’s best genre fodder. The perfect example of this is Holiday on the Buses (1973); a film that continues to draw me in because of the terrifying tragicomic darkness it inhabits. It’s icky to watch. But then that’s why I enjoy it so much.
Holiday on the Buses starts with our hapless hero Stan (Reg Varney) causing an accident while a bus is backing out in the station and he’s too distracted oogling a young woman that an smash ensues, resulting in his sacking and eventual new employment along with sex-crazed sidekick Jack (Bob Grant) at Pontins Holiday Camp. Blowhard Blakey (Stephen Lewis) — the ex bus inspector forever trying to catch Stan out and lose him his job— follows on by taking a job as camp security, even though he’s supposed to be recovering from the broken foot he got during the accident. The fucked up picture is completed when Stan’s feckless family — Mother (Doris Hare), brother-in-law Arthur (Michael Robbins), sister Olive (Anna Karen), and their precocious kid “Little Arthur” — decide to take a holiday at the camp too, exploiting Stan’s new position. Hijinks ensue as Stan’s life, as dictated by the series, becomes a living nightmare as he tries, unsuccessfully, to keep his job and chaos unfolds around him.
Much of Stan’s nightmare involves his strange position within the family. He has become the head and only reasonably paid member meaning it is his responsibility to put bread on the table. Brother-in-law Arthur appears to be utterly useless, relying largely on Stan’s financial assistance to make up his shortfall, as does Mother, and therefore Stan, no matter how hard he tries, cannot escape his responsibilities. He is trapped, emasculated, continuously derided and disrespected by his family, when all he wants is to be free and to find himself the perfect woman to settle down with (all efforts are disrupted, which becomes another running joke; and one that was used in even more perverse ways in Steptoe and Son with the father/son grotesque cycle of sadomasochism and co-dependency found there). The apple of his eye in Holiday on the Buses is Mavis, but he is destined to never get any quality time with her because of his disruptive family.
What makes this angle especially perverse is Stan’s position as a third wheel in the relationship between his sister Olive and her abusive husband Arthur. Stan has essentially become a husband by proxy, with all of the responsibility and none of the fun. He doesn’t appear fit to have his own marriage, and is forced to live vicariously through the worst bits of Olive and Arthur’s. Driven almost to the point of nervous breakdown by the perpetual nagging from his mother and brother-in-law, it doesn’t seem to matter that literally nobody else in the family takes responsibility for their own upkeep, as long as Stan does as he’s told. His cowardice and spinelessness make him a passive aggressive underdog who can elicit sympathy from this aspect. But when you stop to think about how messed up the entire situation is, when twinned with his seeming inability to take any control over his own life, what you have is a sublime character portrait of a cuckolded man. Add to this the fact his personal space is constantly invaded by Arthur and Olive’s domestic affairs, their arguments, Olive’s childlike presence, Arthur’s constant negativity, and their vandal child from hell who shits all the time, and eventually sets off the cycle of events which lead to an explosion in the family’s chalet, and you have a boiling pot that looks set to explode into extreme violence. The punchline is it never does. Stan, resigned to his awful fate, can do nothing but look increasingly defeated. The fact his aging mother is clearly more successful in romance — she develops a holiday fling with widower Bert (played by the fabulous Wilfred Brambell of the aforementioned Steptoe fame)— just seems to be the final stab at what’s left of his fading virility.
But then the universe of On the Buses in general is filled with men who are cuckolded, useless, unmasculine, pathetic. It isn’t just Stan. Take Arthur for example. A virtually unemployable man who appears to have married an adult baby in Olive, who frequently takes out his frustration on her by inflicting her with increasingly vicious verbal abuse as a means of taking some control of his own pathetic existence. I have always wondered why they stay together because Arthur cannot seem to stand the woman and clearly blames her for his own failings. Olive, by return, does nothing to defend herself against the man who bullies her. Retreating into tears and the arms of her mother to “there there’s” and sympathy, she is the ultimate victim. It’s amazing the pair even managed to conjure up Little Arthur given the circumstances; and that’s not even factoring in their complete lack of privacy. Olive appears invested in the relationship, at least in a romantic sense, and her running joke (as well as being entirely useless at life and motherhood) becomes her advances towards an unwilling husband. His rejection of her maps Arthur out as either impotent or prudish (depending on how you want to look at it), which also explains a lot of his anger.
Blakey too, the man we are supposed to love to hate, the ultimate jobsworth, is as emasculated, if not even more, than Arthur and Stan. A man so worthless his only goal in life is to get one up on Stan, Jack, and his other colleagues who appear more successful with women than he does; a fight he will never win because his fate is to forever be humiliated and laughed at by everyone around him. Holiday On the Buses introduces a sad love triangle of sorts between Blakey, his nurse, and Jack. The Inspector’s strange obsession with micromanaging can only be explained by his position of powerlessness he finds in situations just like these. Just when he thinks he’s winning, such as losing Stan his job, or falling in love, he is slapped back down and made into the butt end of the joke. The comedy frequently derives from the fact he is allowed to believe he’s had some success, before it’s cruelly snatched away leaving him to taunt his immortal line: “I’ll get you Butler”. The joke is, he never will. We know it; he knows it. Why does he bother? Because that’s what everyone in On the Buses is destined to do. Again and again, ad infinitum.
And if the cycle of co-dependency, vicious cruelty, and fuck you life lessons wasn’t enough, we have the character of Jack to contend with. A man unable to keep his cock in his pants for two minutes, his constant letching after women, and the escapades which follow, usually resulting in a personal cost to his mate Stan — such as taking the bus out to the beach to seduce a pair of women, only to have the tide come in and the vehicle get stuck in the sand — defies any sort of logic. You see the thing is Jack is utterly grotesque, physically repulsive, and yet, still somewhat successful with women, even though he treats them like a herd of cattle. The line appears to be taken from Sid James Carry On Camp, where his own lewd humour was part of the game, but in the case of James there’s something about him, a twinkle in the eye, a sense of danger, that might just explain why women are attracted to him. This is not remotely true for On the Buses’ Jack though and I have had to come to the conclusion that his creation is some sort of absurd fuck you to notions of the masculine ideal. It’s the only thing I can think of which explains his presence. This said, Reg Varney as Stan is hardly love’s young dream either. He was born in 1916, so hardly qualifies as playboy material in a 1973 feature, especially not when his conquests are played by women in their late teens/ early twenties.
By extension the holiday camp setting is the stuff real nightmares are made of. I know, I have spent time on them. A vessel of forced “fun” and constant rounds of bingo. It’s enough to drive anyone to the end of their rope — on my third day of a holiday at Pontins Blackpool, when the kids were a lot younger, I figured out the only way I was going to survive the rest of the week was to remain drunk for the duration; it worked but only just. It is the fact that the universe of On the Buses takes place in this setting, where fun is timetabled and the jolly incidental music purveys the spirit that everyone is having a wonderful old time, all while Stan’s misery unfolds, serves to make the bite even more tragic. But then if anything, when you pull back the veneer of holiday nostalgia, cartoonish characters, the ridiculous humour, we are left with a clear message: if you are working class, keep calm and carry on. You may be forced to live with a bunch of people who undermine your very existence out of economic necessity, you can work all the hours God sends and never get it right, because there will always be a middle manager out there who wants to teach you a lesson for not knowing your place, but if you are good, you and your shitty family can be rewarded two weeks on the camp from hell, where 7am calls for bingo and lunchtime ballroom dancing are going to be the only entertainment you are allowed. But never complain. Take your bitter bill, swallow it whole, and just when you are defeated enough, you can be the hero in your own nightmare.