Comedy actor who achieved stardom as the character Stan Butler in the Seventies TV sitcom On the Buses
Reg Varney, who died last Sunday aged 92, was an actor, comedian and singer who became famous as the central figure in the popular situation comedy On the Buses, which began in 1969 and ran for seven series.
Varney managed to capture the quintessential spirit of a happy-go-lucky London bus driver in the character of Stan Butler, a cheeky barrel of laughs with an eye for the girls. And it is a testament to his skills as an actor that he managed to play so convincingly the role of an immature 35-year-old when he was in his mid-50s.
Always conscious of his lack of formal training as an actor, Varney was an earnest man when on set. He took his work seriously, constantly learning and rehearsing his lines -- as well as those of the other cast members, to give himself a complete understanding of the situation in which a comedy episode was set.
Although to a large extent he played himself in On the Buses, Varney went to considerable lengths to research the role, even taking bus-driving lessons and a test to gain a heavy goods vehicle licence so that he could be filmed driving a bus on the open road.
He would truly relax only at the end of a series, when he would throw a "Cockney party night" for the programme's cast and crew at his home in Enfield, north London. It was his little joke to get his co-stars eating whelks, cockles and jellied eels while he drank whiskey or performed old East End songs at the piano.
In the Sixties and early Seventies he was rarely out of the public eye, appearing on the television screen in sitcoms such as The Rag Trade and Beggar My Neighbour as well as 65 episodes of On the Buses and three spin-off films. The public, however, never fully forgave him for leaving On the Buses. His popularity waned, and his television and film career collapsed. He ended up working as an entertainer on cruise ships and touring Australia with his one-man show. He then contracted a severe viral infection which for three years made working hard for him; he decided to retire to Devon, where he painted landscapes and wrote his memoirs.
Reginald Alfred Varney was born on July 11, 1916, at Canning Town, east London. His childhood was a happy one, although his parents struggled to make ends meet. His father worked in a rubber factory, and was a great story-teller and a talented pianist. The Varney household throbbed to the rhythms of East End social life: there were parties at which the women downed glasses of port and lemon and the men drank pints of ale while Reg's father entertained them with popular tunes on the piano.
Reg's show business career began when he was 15, at Plumstead Working Men's Club. The club's chairman booked him after hearing him sing Ramona in the front room of the Varneys' family home and declared: "I'm going to make this boy a star."
The young Varney's debut was a remarkable success: he reduced the audience -- many of whom were elderly -- to tears by rounding off his performance with a ballad about old people ending their days in a workhouse. He went home with 10 shillings, a princely sum in those days.
Soon he was a regular on the working men's club circuit, singing to great acclaim at most of the major venues in and around London.
But, as he admitted later in an autobiography, The Little Clown (1990), all the applause and flattery he received made him "self-opinionated, smug, cocky and swollen-headed". This culminated in an unfortunate night at a club in Kennington, south London, when he over-confidently performed the song Chapel in the Moonlight as an encore, even though he did not know the words. He left the stage to a humiliating silence.
Varney made his West End debut in May 1938 as a solo pianist at the Windmill Theatre. During the Second World War he joined the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, but failed at first to gain entry to the 30 Corps Theatrical Pool. Instead he started and took charge of his own concert party, the REME Revels.
Varney found juggling his soldiering duties with those of an entertainer and concert party manager utterly exhausting. He was working day and night and still expected to entertain others in his mess on the piano when he returned to catch up on his sleep.
After demobilisation, he became an actor. He appeared at the Finsbury Park Empire, north London, in an act in which he pretended to be a ventriloquist and his dummy. He also worked in summer shows at Margate with Benny Hill as his stooge.
In 1950 Varney made his film debut in Miss Robin Hood. But it was not until 1961 that his television break came in the situation comedy The Rag Trade, set in the dressmaking workshop of Fenner Fashions.
The show was taped on Sundays, allowing the producers the pick of actors on the West End stage who would not have been available for work during the week.
The star-studded cast included Miriam Karlin, Peter Jones, Sheila Hancock and Barbara Windsor. Varney was aware that he was the only performer without West End acting experience and worked hard to make up for it.
At read-throughs of the script his performance would give the writers cause for concern. But on the day of recording, he would know his lines and the comic potential of the episode better than anyone.
He moved on to his own show, The Valiant Varneys, which ran for a year from 1964, and the next year starred in Joey Boy, a comedy feature film about the Army. He appeared in The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966.
Between 1967 and 1969 he played an affluent fitter in the sitcom Beggar My Neighbour, in which he co-starred with Pat Coombs, Peter Jones and June Whitfield.
But it was the television comedy On the Buses, written by Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney, that made Varney a household name. Screened from 1969 until 1973, the series revolved around a bus driver's capers with his conductor, played by Bob Grant, their home life, and their efforts to put one over on the bus depot's lugubrious Inspector Blakey (Stephen Lewis).
Varney also starred in three On the Buses feature films, made by Hammer: On the Buses (1971), Mutiny On the Buses (1972) and Holiday On the Buses (1973). But when he finally left the role for good, his career suffered.
He made a television comeback in 1976 in Down the Gate, a series in which he played a Billingsgate fish porter. But, like the film The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1973), in which he played a female impersonator, it did little to revive his career.
Retiring to Devon, Varney wrote a series of books about his life. These were noted more for their detail than fine writing style.
A dedicated family man, Varney was close to his daughter Jeanne, who lived nearby. He was much grieved when her first husband died suddenly of a brain tumour.
Reg Varney had been living in a nursing home at Budleigh Salterton. His wife Lilian died in 2002, and he is survived by his daughter.