Hammer Films wasn't exactly a laugh factory, known instead throughout the world for its Gothic horror films. But during much of the 1950s and again in the early-1970s Hammer produced more than its fair share of feature comedies. Many of these films were based on popular British television shows unknown to American audiences, and so while these movies were frequently popular domestically, few have ever been released in America.
Nevertheless, these comedies were cheap to produce and by the early-1970s were virtually the only Hammer films making any money. Indeed, Hammer's big hit of 1971 wasn't Twins of Evil or Countess Dracula or Creatures the World Forgot, but rather a modest little film called On the Buses, based on the popular sitcom.
On the Buses was in fact so successful for Hammer that it spawned two sequels: Mutiny on the Buses (1972) and Holiday on the Buses (1973). All three are available as On the Buses DVD Triple Feature, from Warner Bros.
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 Blake (Stephen Lewis). Reg's troubles are compounded at home, where he lives with his mother (Doris Hare), sister Olive (Anna Karen), and loathsome brother-in-law, 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 U.K.), and virtually the entire cast and much of the crew made the transition to the feature films. The first two movies especially play like extended episodes of a sitcom, but are pretty entertaining on their own terms, certainly better than the awful film version of the popular British show Till Death Us Do Part (1969), which Anchor Bay released to DVD earlier this year.
Reg Varney and the late Bob Grant (sadly, he committed suicide only last month) are likeably mischievous, visually contrast 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 gborrowh 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 effective material like this that probably attracted comedian Mike Myers, who reportedly is developing a new On the Buses feature.
The skirt-chasing lechery works less well, seeming quite dated by modern standards, and by the hard to swallow premise that beautiful women in their early-20s would fall for the Brylcreemed, 50-something Stan, or the weasely-faced, overtly randy Jack, whose toothy smile makes James Coburn look all gums by comparison.
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.
Video & Audio
On the Buses is presented in 4:3 full frame format while Mutiny on the Buses and Holiday on the Buses are 16:9 anamorphic. On the Buses is an unimpressive transfer that looks at least 10 years old, judging by the weak color and lack of definition. The picture was obviously composed for 1.66:1 widescreen, and looks much better zoomed in on 16:9 TVs. Conversely, both Mutiny and Holiday look splendid, on par with Anchor Bay's anamorphic Hammer titles of similar vintage. There are no extras at all, nor are any of the films subtitled or close-captioned, though the Dolby Digital mono sound is fine.
An Important Note: The three movies are spread over two discs, with On the Buses on the first, and Mutiny and Holiday on the second. This reviewer originally received only the first disc, and the first replacement copy had exactly the same defect. When I contacted my online retailer, they insisted that there was only one disc. Fearing I was going mad, I contacted Steve at the On the Buses Fan Club; turns out he got the second DVD but not the first. This problem has plagued other consumers as well, so be warned.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.