ON THE BUSES
With some Sociological Observations
I have long contended that if you really want to understand society through its literature you should study its 'B' literature, not its 'A' literature. 'A' literature is that which makes you question your own motives, satirises your conventions, and which has a universal value through the ages. This is the literature that gets banned by dictators and religious authorities. 'B' literature, on the other hand, aims to provide comfort and to make you content within your own social environment: it reinforces your prejudices.
Regarding television programmes as literature for the purposes of this investigation, I should like to examine the series 'On the Buses'. This was a popular show in its time, and its time was the mid-sixties when monochrome broadcasting was being superseded by colour. It has to be said that production values were poor, though one reason for that was that television cameras were bulky, expensive and primitive. Another reason, not unconnected, was that indoor scenes were staged like a theatrical set, in which the actors moved and spoke as if they needed to be seen and heard in the gallery.
Furthermore, the television series was backed up by three films, all of which earned one star, the lowest quality rating, from the critics. If I say that the funniest scene in 'Holiday on the Buses' is where Stan inadvertently blows up all the toilets in a holiday camp, you will appreciate that the humour, such as it is, is not highly sophisticated. Whether it was because of the films, or because the television audience tired of the series, the main actors seem to have found it difficult to secure subsequent employment. Those being: Reg Varney (Stan the bus driver), Bob Grant (Jack, his appalling conductor), Stephen Lewis (Blakey the bus inspector), and Michael Robbins (Arthur, Stan's useless brother-in-law). Doris Hare (Stan's mum) went on to appear in the 'Confessions' series of films, about which the less said the better, and Anna Karen (Olive, Stan's dim sister) became the presenter of television programmes for little children.
The basic situation was as follows: Stan is supporting single-handedly a household consisting of mother, sister, unemployed brother-in-law, and, later on, Arthur and Olive's baby. The whole household lives in the steamy kitchen, which clearly reeks of boiled cabbage, washing powder and dirty nappies. Because Stan's domestic arrangements constrain him both physically and financially, he always fails to get his leg over any of the totty, crumpet, skirt or blart that work for the bus company. Jack, on the other hand, having no responsibilities or anyway acknowledging none, is by contrast successful in that direction, making Stan's plight more pitiable. Both Stan and Jack are united, however, in their determination to do as little work as possible, making them the enemies of Blakey who is always trying to foil their petty schemes.
This is pretty thin stuff. Let us examine the life and environment of Stan from a modern-day perspective. To begin with, the modern family would not live in the kitchen, but would have opened up the parlour in order to watch the television in comfort. Arthur owns a motor-cycle and sidecar, which is regularly breaking down and is repaired at the expense of the bus company; they do not have a car. Buses are crewed by a driver and a conductor. However, the most important difference between now and then, which causes people of my generation to smirk ruefully in remembrance of times past; which causes people of the next generation (especially women) to grind their teeth in rage; and which causes people of the youngest generation to dismiss the programmes as a quirk of history: is the way in which women are treated.
The numerous women who work in the buses are either conductresses or work in the canteen. They wear short skirts and lavish facial make-up. They are well practised at fending off the coarse and groping advances of Stan and Jack, though if such advances were not made their amour propre would be damaged. They are afraid of mice and spiders, and they cannot read maps. They are quite unsuited for important positions such as bus driver, much less inspector or senior management. And the Union conspires with the men to keep them in their place. How much of this was true?
I think the point of 'On the Buses', which is quite lost on modern audiences, is that the attitudes portrayed were intended to be seen by contemporary viewers as comically old-fashioned. When I started in Local Government in 1966 there were four qualified female local government accountants in the whole of England and Wales. Nowadays one rather expects the Chief Financial Officer in a city or a county to be a woman. It is the same with other professional positions, such as Solicitor. My first Treasurer, who had some clout in the profession, having written the standard textbook on Local Government Capital Finance and earned the OBE (Other Buggers' Efforts, said the Surveyor), put himself out to encourage young women to seek professional qualification. At the same time women were starting to drive heavy vehicles, which, since servo came as standard, no longer required gorilla-like arms to steer them. That Socialist Paradise, the Soviet Union, advertised equality of the sexes as one reason for its boasted cultural and economic supremacy. [Though a Soviet citizen, female, told me that the reason thay had so many women doctors of medicine was that they came cheaper.] Actually, one reason that employers were seeking to advance women was that, with Union blessing, they were paid less for doing the same work.
What I am suggesting is that 'On the Buses' was not a portrait of contemporary life, but a satire on a disappearing and unlamented society that was well familiar to its audience. By the 1960's most people had televisions and washing machines; they did not live in their kitchens; they did not keep cabbage boiling on the stove; young women were no longer totty, crumpet or skirt, but were better educated with steadily expanding opportunities. Obviously there were still pockets of primitivism. Equal pay for equal work was for he future. By the way, the house that I moved into in 1990 had its kitchen/dining-room decorated throughout with paint filched from the bus company!
If you want a comparison, I suggest looking at the music-hall songs of the mid-Victorian era. Many of these, because they refer to a rural life, are thought by present-day performers to be folk songs. But clearly songs such as 'The Thrashing Machine' or 'Turmut Hoeing' are satires on “rural idiocy” as Karl Marx called it. We think of dispossessed farm labourers pouring into Victorian slums to work long hours for a pittance and die of cholera and syphilis. But the young who were pouring into the towns in search of opportunity were leaving rural hovels and disablement and early death from rhumatoid arthritis and pulmonary tuberculosis. They formed brass bands (based on the Prussian military band), choral societies, friendly societies, mechanics' institutes; they travelled by train; and they took an interest in politics. Music-hall entertainers knew that they would get a laugh when they made fun of the rural life that their audiences had only recently escaped from.
At least the conflict between town and country in Victorian England could be illustrated in comic songs. In France that conflict was not so benign. The problem was that as soon as radical politicians got everybody the vote, the peasantry voted for an authoritarian government. Thus while Britain and France developed at more or less the same pace economically, British political development was controlled by Parliament under the presidency of an unchallenged monarchy, in France between 1829 and 1871 there were two monarchies, one empire and two republics. In the Soviet Union things were much worse. The Bolsheviks, under Stalin, set themselves up as the Vanguard of the Proletariat, though, consisting of Jews, Georgians, Armenians and assorted urban intellectuals, they did not even have a proletarian background. The proletariat were themselves a small minority of the population. Their inhuman and bizarre solution to the problem of how to modernise rapidly was to create mass starvation in the countryside. Perhaps this can be compared with the mass starvation in the Irish and Scottish countryside in the late 1840's, which had driven a poverty-stricken rural population into the industrial centres of England, Scotland and the United States.
When all is said and done, then, I suggest that 'On the Buses' should be judged charitably. It is, in a small way, an illustration of how a peaceful, civilized society can manage the friction caused by rapid social change. It also shows that some value can be found even in our more trivial cultural manifestations if our criticism includes placing them in their historical and social context.