Jack Scott and Reg Varney
Dec 4th 2008
From The Economist print edition
Jack Scott and Reg Varney, two British icons of the 1970s, died on November 11th and 16th respectively, aged 85 and 92
STOICISM is something the British are world-famous for. They carry on; they make do; they seldom complain, but form an orderly line to take whatever Fate may throw at them. At very bad moments—the Blitz, for example—they laugh and tell jokes against the enemy. Modern Britons are by and large a feebler and non-queuing race, as hedonistic, wasteful and complaining as anyone else; but the stereotype persists, and a moment of crisis is sure to bring it out again. For the British are subject to two utterly random forces that regularly test their stoicism and their patience: the weather and the buses.
The weather and the buses are known to be in league with each other. The worse the one, the fewer of the other, and the more dismal life in general. All the more so in the 1970s, when meteorology was a less exact science, bus-shelters ran no digitalised information, no one had mobile phones to explain what they were doing or where they were going or when they might be expected, and pre-Raphaelite hair, beards, flares, maxi-skirts and platform shoes turned any encounter with the elements (as any attempt to descend at speed from the upper deck) into serious drama, if not trauma.
The random ways of public transport were nowhere better celebrated than in “On the Buses”, a favourite 1970s TV sitcom starring Reg Varney as Stan Butcher, the short and cheeky driver of the Number 11 bus. The Number 11 served the mythical Essex town of Luxton, in fact Wood Green in North London. The green double-decker spent more hours in the garage than out of it, and Stan spent more time eating tea with his dysfunctional family or hanging out with his mate Jack, a randy conductor with an eye for the birds; but he often supped his stew still dressed in his bus-driver’s jacket with its shiny badge, a token of his devotion to his job. The modern Briton’s nostalgia for buses with rounded lines, conductors, platforms and hand-cranked ticket machines has much to do with him.
Mr Varney endowed Stan with all the lip and ebullience of his East End upbringing, and all the comic timing acquired from his years on the pub, club and variety circuit, which has now vanished. He kept to the end of his life the delighted glint-in-the-eye of a boy who has been paid eight shillings and sixpence for playing the accordion in Plumstead Working Men’s Club, and can’t believe his luck. Stan, it was fairly clear, was himself, and he could drive a bus to prove it.
But there were subtexts to “On the Buses”. One was the war, still vivid in most adults’ minds. Mr Varney played the perky Cockney survivor making life hell for the lugubrious Blakey, the bus-inspector, a Hitler lookalike who swore at the end of every episode to get even with him, and never did. Other roles came Mr Varney’s way both before and after “On the Buses”, and he gave them his talent and effort as he always did; but he never found another that so won the public’s heart.
It had something to do not just with him, but with the whole British experience of suffering at the hands of Factors Beyond Our Control. The hours spent waiting, staring into the middle distance; the buses that would then either sail past full or turn up in a pack; the conductor and the driver cheerily oblivious (despite anguished pinging on the cord) of anyone’s destination but their own. And all this against a backdrop, more often than not, of gently scything rain.
The BBC’s chief weatherman in these years, and the man in whom most Britons trusted as they left the house, was Jack Scott, a toothy, kindly, courteous man in unflattering NHS glasses. He was passionately involved with weather all his life. A County Durham boy, fresh out of college at 17, he had gone straight to the Meteorological Office; during the war he had manned weather stations, both balmy and bracing, in Malta, North Africa and Shetland. His whole career revolved around talking about the weather on television, until he gave it up in favour of enduring the elements on the golf course.
Mr Scott was a new sort of weatherman, as cheerily populist as Stan, but more informative. He also did his level best to make the weather forecast gripping. In 1975 he introduced, in place of the runic circles, figures and barographs on synoptic maps, magnetic picture-symbols about the size of his hand. The clouds that rained down on bus-awaiting Britons were now a cuddly fistful, letting loose a few drops; the storms that pelted and shocked them were now a jagged yellow lightning flash, almost as exciting on everyone’s black-and-white screens; and the sun hid modestly behind the ever-present cumulus, a few sparse rays showing, with an occasional full-frontal blaze over Torquay.
The symbols did not always stay on the map. Though pressed confidently over one benighted place, they might slide slowly down, or fall off, all of which Mr Scott took in his smiling stride. Nor did they necessarily signify the weather that would actually arrive. But Britons knew this was par for the course. Fortified with the last vestiges of wartime stoicism, they would wait patiently under their umbrellas for the tall green shape of the Number 11 bus: the one that ran along the High Street and ended at the cemetery gates.