Reginald Alfred "Reg" Varney [1] (11 July 1916 – 16 November 2008) [2] was an English actor, entertainer and comedian best known for his television roles on The Rag Trade and On the Buses , appearing in the latter's three spin-off film versions.

Early life

Varney was born in Canning Town, then in Essex but now part of the London Borough of Newham. His father worked in a rubber factory in Silvertown and he was one of five children who grew up in Addington Road, Canning Town. Varney was educated at the nearby Star Lane Primary School in West Ham and after leaving school at 14, he worked as a messenger boy and a page boy at the Regent Palace Hotel. He took piano lessons as a child and was good enough to find employment as a part-time piano player. His first paid engagement was at Plumstead Radical Club in Woolwich, for which he was paid eight shillings and sixpence (42½p). He also played in working men's clubs, pubs and ABC cinemas, and later sang with big bands of the time. He and his mother decided that show business was the career for him, and he gave up his day jobs.

During the Second World War, Varney joined the Royal Engineers, but continued his performing career as an army entertainer, touring in the Far East for a time. After being demobilised in the late 1940s, he starred on stage in a comic revue entitled Gaytime , with Benny Hill as his partner in a double act. He then became an all-round entertainer, working his way around the music halls.

Career

Varney was cast in the role of a foreman in the television sitcom The Rag Trade (1961–63), which made him a household name. He was aware that he was the only performer without West End acting experience and worked hard to make up for it. Slightly later, he starred in a show for BBC TV called The Valiant Varneys (1964–65), performing various characters in front of a live audience. After that followed another comedy role in Beggar My Neighbour (1966–68); this also starred Pat Coombs, June Whitfield, and Peter Jones. Pat Coombs played the wife of Varney's character. Varney featured in The Great St Trinian's Train Robbery (1966) with Frankie Howerd, Dora Bryan and George Cole.

The world's first voucher-based cash dispensing machine was installed at the Enfield Town branch of Barclays Bank. Varney was living in Enfield at the time and for publicity purposes he was photographed making the first withdrawal from the machine on Tuesday 27 June 1967. [2]

Varney's most successful lead role was in the sitcom On the Buses (1969–73) as the bus driver Stan Butler, who never has much luck where romance is concerned. Varney took considerable lengths to research the role, even taking bus-driving lessons and a test to gain a public service vehicle licence so that he could be filmed driving a bus on the open road. Three spin-off films were made — On the Buses (1971), Mutiny on the Buses (1972) and Holiday on the Buses (1973). Varney was 52 when the first series was recorded, although his character, who lived with his mother and was often trying to attract young women, was supposed to be about 35. Varney was only eleven years younger than Doris Hare, the main actress to play his mother in the series.

Varney left the series midway through its last season, hoping to move on to films and other projects. Ultimately, he only appeared in one further non- Buses film, The Best Pair of Legs in the Business (1973), and two television series, both made by ATV for the ITV network: an eponymously-titled sketch show (1973-4) and another sitcom, Down the Gate (1975-6), which was set in Billingsgate Fish Market. However neither series replicated his success with On the Buses , and after Down the Gate was dropped after twelve episodes, Varney did not star in another television series. LWT revived The Rag Trade in 1977, but Varney did not reprise his role.

He later worked as an entertainer on cruise ships and toured Australia with his one-man show. He told an interviewer, "Whatever I did after On the Buses , nobody wanted to know about it. But I can't knock the programme because it brought me offers to do concert tours in Australia, New Zealand and Canada."

At the height of his fame he was a subject of the television programme This Is Your Life in May 1970 when he was surprised by Eamonn Andrews, making further appearances in programmes featuring Doris Hare, Douglas Bader, June Whitfield and Anthony Newley.

Varney released several LP albums during his career - This Is Reg Varney On The 88s at Abbey Road on Columbia in 1972; Reg's Party - Reg Varney Plays And Sings on EMI-One-Up label in 1973; and A Variety of Varney on Astor in 1976.

Retirement and death

Varney had a heart attack in 1965, and in 1981 he suffered a more serious one. [5] He then contracted a severe viral infection, which for three years made working difficult for him. In 1989 he suffered a stroke, which left him with an uneven heartbeat. Subsequently he divided his time between his home in a small village near Dartmouth and a villa in Malta.

Varney moved to Devon in the late 1980s and lived alone after his wife, Lilian Emma Varney died in East Devon in 2002, aged 92.

Varney died aged 92 in a nursing home in Budleigh Salterton, Devon, on 16 November 2008, following a chest infection. He was survived by his daughter Jeanne Varney. [2]

In his retirement years, Varney painted local landscapes in oil, with many to professional standard and at one point some of his works were exhibited in London.

In 2016, 100 years since Reg Varney was born, a show called "Before the Buses" was commissioned by Reg's daughter Jeanne and written by local playwright Steve Andrews. [7]

Partial filmography

Selected television roles

Year Title Role
1961–1963 The Rag Trade Reg Turner
1966–1968 Beggar My Neighbour Harry Butt
1969–1973 On the Buses Stan Butler
1975–1976 Down the 'Gate Reg Furnell

Further reading

  • Downs, Michael (2016). Our Little Clown: A Centenary Tribute to Entertainer Reg Varney. Fairlynch Museum.
  • Varney, Reg (1990). The Little Clown: An Autobiography. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0340520779