Sunday, 17 May 2009

Mutiny on the Buses

Like Viz comic, ITV1 seems to exist largely for the purpose of scrutinising working-class British life. Unlike Tyneside's best-loved bi-monthly magazine though, ITV1 doesn't apparently mean to be satirical so much as affectionate.

Take this Sunday morning, May 17 2009. I don't make a habit of watching soap operas, or indeed lying in bed knowingly wallowing in low culture (well, actually...), but on this particular Sunday morning I saw no particular reason to rise and lingered on for far longer than usual, the TV on for company. An omnibus of Coronation Street was screening when I fired up my set and the series's attention to detail of the banality and trvialities of everyday life was, frankly, both comforting and cursiosly enlightening.

The dull decor of the characters' homes, the shabbiness of the Rovers Return Inn, the George at Asda clothes sported by the cast, all of these serve as well-observed reminders that life isn't all Lily Allen and Hoxton Square. I say this not to sneer but to demonstate a genuine affection which rocked me as I tuned in and out of the show. Indeed, Jack Duckworth's worries about being seen with another woman after his wife's death were heartening in this epoch, in which 'fidelity' is seemingly something of concern only to hi-fi reparirmen, and the pain of regret felt by Norris (who I gather runs the corner shop - I'd never seen the show before) as someone special to him left the Street for a life of caravanning around the south coast was oddly moving.

Yes, the lives and concerns of the 'little people' of this sceptered Isle as depicted in Corrie tip a hat to the everyday, unglamorous side of life, so rarely seen on TV. But if Corrie depicts an unremarkable, vaguely grimy working-class life in 2009, nothing could have prepared me for the film which followed it, 1972's Mutiny on the Buses.

I've recently been getting into Carry On films, so the opening credits of this Hammer Comedy Classic (I couldn't help wondering if Peter Cushing was going to pop up any moment) compelled me to pull the duvet up closer and concentrate on what was on-screen. If you thought Carry On films were end-of-the-pier entertainment, you ain't seen nothing yet.

A quick Wikipedia search after the film's end informed me that Mutiny... is a spin-off of popular ITV1 sitcom On the Buses, which I'd heard of but never seen, and a sequel to a big-screen outing with the same title. But, like a Dickens novel, it's so much more than a bog-standard bawdy British comedy: it's a snapshot of an era of British life that is, materially-speaking, so far removed from today as to be almost mind-blowing, yet spiritually the cousin of Corrie.

The main thrust of the film sees Stan Butler (played by a 50+ Reg Varney), a bus driver, attempting to put his affairs in order so that he can marry his conductress, move out of his mother's home and escape his oddball family, all the while getting through life shirking and having a laugh with his best friend Jack Harper (Bob Grant).

All the heartening British hallmarks of the late 1960s are present and correct: big double-decker buses, red telephone kiosks, sideburns on every male character, smokers peopling every scene and smutty laughs by the barrel-full. The remarkable things about this film, though, are the small details which wouldn't have seemed shocking at all at the beginning of the '70s but which are entirely at odds with modern sensibilities.

I'm not sure how much this film and the Carry Ons' insistence on marriage before sex as a norm was for comedic and farcical effect, but each girl Stan ends up with puts pressure on him to propose almost as soon as their liason begins, and so the sexual morality which runs through the piece is a curious mix of knowing nod-and-wink allusions to 'forbidden' sauciness, coupled with this hangover insistence on marriage as proper and expected. Perhaps it's this kind of eagerness and coyness in the national character which has given rise to our current culture of prurience and locker-room boasting, to borrow a phrase from the Americans...

The film's lackadasical approach to working life is both recognisable and refreshingly nihilistic: these men know that they'll rise no higher in life and content themselves with trying to wring as much fun and mischief out of their humdrum lives as they're able.

But it's the domestic setups which are really remarkable. Stan Butler is a man in his mid-thirties who lives with his mother, sister, brother-in-law and infant nephew in a small and vaguely tatty-looking house, which his mother shockingly suggests he move his future bride into. The house itself is blandly grotesque: a symphony of browns, beiges and debris, with the baby shitting at the dinner table while the other characters are eating. Such a set-up, I would imagine, seems astonishing to many watching the film today but was evidently unremarkable back in the 1970s.

Many of the film's locations and set-pieces are uniquely British too. At the bus depot a game of darts between staff and management gives the characters an opportunity to let their hair down, indulge in a few vodka and tonics and make spectacles of themselves, and the busmens' 'exotic' trip to a safari park toward the film's end both act as reminders of the simple pleasures we Britons delight in. Even the adverts which adorn the many buses in the film scream out 'Go Pontinental!' in reference to Pontins holiday camp.

Mutiny on the Buses isn't spectacularly funny. The physical comedy pieces are so contrived as to be utterly predicable and their execution is enthusiastic if not particularly well-done. The dialogue-driven humour's not much better: a decent example, from Stan's sister about her husband, is "Don't go to bed with him! The only thing he's got that'll keep you awake at night is his snoring!". No, the film's real appeal to a contemporary audience coming to it cold is the image of working-class Britain some forty years ago. The bonhomie and affection the characters show for one another, the proliferation of 'cor, blimey!'s and ''ave you gone ravin' mad?!'s, the grottiness of the film's locations and the obvious class schisms which are the source of much of the film's humour; all of these things mark the film out as ostensibly working-class British and proud and the product of a less self-obsessed age. Even the Carry On-style seaside postcard fascination with women in their undies is present and correct when Stan and Jack burst in on the ladies changing room at the bus depot.

As a cultural experience Mutiny on the Buses is up there with Carry On at Your Convenience as a snapshot of a golden-age of British low-culture now long-since past, but even to this day it is a film which cannot fail to produce a warm feeling of affection in a viewer. As a curiosity piece, it's fascinating to see how British life has evolved materially, and as light-hearted fun it's perfectly servicable.

ITV is a pretty beleaguered media company these days, and while a great deal of their output sickens me (Mr. Cowell's mob, Ant and Dec and The Bill to cite just three examples), it was fascinating to be given the opportunity to compare and contrast working-class British life in 2009 with that of 1972 from the light channel this morning. And while Corrie's peopled with gay characters, ethnic minorities and without a single cigarette or pie-and-mash shop on display, it's refreshing to see that, beneath the surface, the hopes, dreams, aspirations and general morality of the fictionalised working-classes have remained fairly consistent. Fans of bawdy comedy will find much to keep them amused in Mutiny on the Buses; future historians will see the film as an invaluable insight into the cultural history of the English people.

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