On the Buses Film Collection (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Stuart Galbraith IV
  • Review Date: May 06, 2024
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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On the Buses Film Collection (Blu-ray Review)


Harry Booth/Brian Izzard

Release Date(s)

1971/1972/1973 (January 12, 2024)


Hammer Films (Via Vision Entertainment)
  • Film/Program Grade: C+
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: A-
  • Extras Grade: A

On the Buses Film Collection (Blu-ray)

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American Blu-ray buyers should be forgiven for their bemused reactions to Via Vision Entertainment’s On the Buses Film Collection, a super-deluxe-o boxed set packed with extra features supporting its three films: On the Buses (1971), Mutiny on the Buses (1972), and Holiday on the Buses (1973), all based on the popular 1969-’73 British sitcom.

Far as I’ve been able to determine, none of these films were ever released theatrically in the United States, nor was the TV series they were based on ever aired in the US market, at least not then. Undoubtedly, it was presumed, rightly, mostly, that their appeal was limited to UK audiences already familiar with the TV show. The reverse was also sometimes true: imagine British audiences reacting to something like Munster, Go Home! before The Munsters had been syndicated there.

In Britain, however, the first On the Buses film was a flabbergastingly popular hit. There’re some quantifiers involved, but it was, arguably, the highest-grossing film in Britain of 1971, out-grossing even Diamonds Are Forever, the James Bond film with Sean Connery. It cost just GBP 90,000 (about $222,000) yet smashed box-office records across Britain, earning GBP 2.5 million, more than 11 times what it had cost to make.

Equally surprising, the three films were produced by Hammer Films, the company best-known for Gothic horror films like The Curse of Frankenstein and Dracula, often featuring genre stars like Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. By 1971, the company was still making those kinds of films, but on its last legs financially. The success of On the Buses not only threw the company a lifeline, but prompted Hammer to produce more features based on popular TV shows: Nearest and Dearest, Love Thy Neighbour, Man at the Top (all 1973), and Man About the House (1974). Further, other British companies continued the trend with movies based on Steptoe and Son, Are You Being Served?, Rising Damp and others. On their own terms, seen without any familiarly to their sources, their entertainment value for American audiences varies; those who like British film comedy generally will enjoy some of these. Some, like the Are You Being Served? movie, will baffle those unfamiliar with their TV versions. Others, like Love Thy Neighbour, are simply terrible by any measure.

As for On the Buses, both the TV show and the films star Reg Varney as Stan, a (double-decker) bus driver for the Luxton & District Traction Company who, with mate and usual conductor Jack (Bob Grant), chase women and generally create havoc for their supervisor, Inspector “Blakey” Blake (Stephen Lewis). Reg’s troubles are compounded at home, where he lives with his mother (Doris Hare), well-meaning but singularly unattractive sister, Olive (Anna Karen), and her lazy, loathsome no-good husband, Arthur (Michael Robbins).

The show was a big hit when it debuted on the ITV network in 1969 (episodes of the TV show are also available on DVD in the UK), and virtually the entire cast and much of the crew made the transition to the feature films. The first two films especially play like extended episodes of a sitcom, but are reasonably entertaining on their own terms.

Reg Varney and Bob Grant are likably mischievous, visually contrasting one another in classic comedy team tradition, and work well together generating a breezy comic chemistry (Grant frequently wrote for the TV show). The two outrageously borrow buses for their own personal use and make riders wait impatiently while Stan makes love to some blonde on the bus’s upper deck. The movies milk the comic possibilities of such an irresponsible, accident-prone pair charged with such singularly British transportation, all the while constantly exasperating hapless foil Blake. In Holiday on the Buses, for instance Stan, late for a date, races his open-topped double-decker through rough roads and low tree branches, creating all kinds of mayhem for his vacationing passengers up top. It’s lowbrow but occasionally effective material like this that probably attracted comedian Mike Myers, who spent several years unsuccessfully developing a new On the Buses feature.

And Myers wasn’t alone. Just as myriad popular British sitcoms like Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son were reworked into American sitcoms like All in the Family and Sanford and Son, On the Buses was reworked by Carl Reiner, Bill Persky and Sam Denoff (the latter two regular writers on Reiner’s The Dick Van Dyke Show) as Lotsa Luck (1973-74), with Dom DeLuise in the Reg Varney role. Available on DVD in the US, it’s not bad.

The skirt-chasing lechery of the Buses films works less well. Overly-sensitive viewers would find these pictures outrageously misogynistic today, much like the later Carry On films and Benny Hill’s TV shows. One can’t argue that, in these pictures, the women are either busty babes or grotesque caricatures, both groups utterly incompetent at even the simplest tasks. That beautiful, perennially horny women in their early-20s would fall for the Brylcreemed, 50-something Stan (who resembles a less extreme version of Joe E. Ross of Car 54, Where Are You?), or the weasel-faced, overtly randy Jack, whose toothy smile (with stereotypically bad teeth) makes James Coburn look all gums by comparison, is hardly credible. (Sadly, Bob Grant was forever typed as his On the Buses character, suffered years of depression and finally committed suicide after multiple attempts.)

And, yet, what the militantly politically correct crowd policing these movies and TV shows don’t get is the basic innocence that accompanies all such shows. American TV audiences never thought Ralph Kramden would really beat up Alice, sending her to the moon, despite his constant threats; likewise, the Sid Jameses and Benny Hills of British TV and film of this period, despite all their lecherous flirting, rarely, if ever, did it. When push came to shove, they’d chicken out, louse it up, decide to remain faithful to their wives after all, etc. Inarguably, these movies and TV shows objectified women, but ultimately it was the women that ruled the roost.

The first two pictures were obviously made on the cheap, with much of the action taking place in the bus company’s notably barren garage. On the Buses, which has Stan’s job threatened when the short-staffed bus company hires women drivers, is standard stuff, but well executed and fairly amusing. Mutiny on the Buses, which sees an engaged Stan trying to earn more money and eventually driving a specialty bus through the Windsor Animal Park (where he’s observed by the same baboons that would frighten little Damien in The Omen four years later) is more episodic and has more visual slapstick—a fire extinguisher gets out of hand and fills the garage with bubbles—but isn’t as funny. The third picture, Holiday on the Buses, looks more like a real movie, with a stronger cast of “guest stars” (Wilfred Brambell, Henry McGee), and with less time spent on drab studio sets: much of it filmed on location at Prestatyn Pointins Holiday Camp in Wales.

All three films were first collected in an odd DVD set from Warner Bros.’s UK division. That release presented On the Buses in 4:3 full frame format while Mutiny on the Buses and Holiday on the Buses were 16:9 anamorphic. Via Vision’s boxed set, with each film given its own disc and case, are marked improvements over that earlier release, though the first film is still a little rough around the edges and notably soft in its final reel, as if its popularity put a strain on the original camera negative. All three films are 1.66:1 widescreen, with a 1.33:1 open-matte option given for On the Buses. The LPCM 2.0 mono on all three is adequate, and all have optional English subtitles.

For fans of the franchise, Via Vision’s boxed set is packed to the gills with extra features, loads and loads on each disc plus the set includes a fat, full-color booklet that reproduces ad art and press kit materials for each film. Also included: On the Buses: Non-Stop Laughter, a featurette on the making of the film franchise; a new audio commentary by television historian Henry Holland and Aaron Brown of British Comedy Guide; interviews with cast members Reg Varney, Anna Karen, Stephen Lewis and Andria Lawrence; writers/producers Ronald Chesney and Ronald Wolfe; Hammer Films producer and production supervisor Roy Skeggs; runners at Hammer Films, Brian Reynolds & Phil Campbell; author and film historian Morris Bright; Dean Sullivan, of Sullivan Buses, on the classic Routemaster; and Steve Luxton, founder of the On the Buses fan club. There’s also an On the Buses Archive Interviews Revisited featurette, the title sequence for On the Buses with alternate music, and trailers for each film.

To say the On the Buses films are an acquired taste would be an understatement. They’re very dated but movies that capture the working-class British spirit of the times in which they were made, and undeniably popular with those audiences, and still fairly enjoyable when viewed with that frame of mind. Via Vision has done a splendid job in packaging this recommended set.

- Stuart Galbraith IV



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