For millions of television viewers, the name of Reg Varney will always be synonymous with On the Buses, the long-running comedy series in which he played the leading role of Stan Butler.
His rise to fame had been a long and arduous one. Born in the East End of London into a working class family on July 11, 1916, he began performing as a child at the age of seven. At 13, his parents paid for him to have piano lessons and a year later he was working professionally in working men’s clubs, singing and playing the accordion for 8/6 a night (42p). Graduating, as he got older, to nightclubs in Soho, he eventually got a spot as the resident pianist at the Windmill Theatre, accompanying the all-nude revues.
During the Second World War he served with the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers as a sheet metal worker and was later posted to the Far East where he became one of the stalwarts of the Stars in Battledress troop shows. On being demobbed he went back into variety, both as a comic and a pianist, and by 1947 he was topping the number two bills with a young and completely unknown Benny Hill as his stooge. Many summer seasons and pantomimes followed, but it wasn’t until 1961 when he was offered a role in the BBC series The Rag Trade that he began to achieve national fame.
The Rag Trade, co-starring Miriam Karlin and Peter Jones, ran for three series and he followed this with his own children’s programme The Valiant Varneys, a cod historical look at his own family tree. Beggar My Neighbour, again with Peter Jones, was equally successful and in 1968, by now a major TV star, he was offered On the Buses. The series went on to spawn three uninspired films produced by Hammer but they made more money than any other British film released at the time.
Varney’s own film career had begun in 1952 with Miss Robin Hood with Margaret Rutherford and he had played several successful comic character roles in films like Joey Boy (1965) and The Great St Trinian’s Train Robbery (1966), but perhaps his most outstanding and demanding role was that of Sherry, the washed-up drag in The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1973). It was a brilliant performance that many would consider to be Varney’s finest. The film was temporarily shelved at the time since he was appearing in On the Buses and the producers felt that the sight of him in female attire would ruin his macho TV image. Sadly when the film was released much later, it flopped.
In the late seventies, Varney occasionally appeared on television reviving his old piano act – once mercilessly lampooned by Stanley Baxter as Reg Varnish – and he also toured Australia and Canada in cabaret. In 1981 he suffered a severe and debilitating heart attack which curtailed much of his work, but he was back on stage in 1988 in Australia for a production on On the Buses.
By the nineties he was virtually retired and spent most of his time painting landscapes in oils at his home in the West Country and there were several exhibitions of his work locally. He also wrote a touching autobiography, The Little Crown.
He died on November 16, aged 92.
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