On The Buses: The Conduct Of Bob Grant

Robert St Clair ‘Bob’ Grant was born in Hammersmith on 14th April 1932. From an early age, his ambition was to become an actor, and he would later study at RADA. After finishing his National Service, he took various jobs and ironically, given the role that would eventually make him a household name, he briefly worked as a bus driver. In the 1952 performance of R. F. Delderfield’s 1945 comedic play, Worm’s Eye View, Grant made his theatre debut. Over the next few years, he devoted himself to the stage before making his first television appearance in the 1959 series, Quatermass and the Pit. The following year, during the run of Macbird at the Theatre Royal in Stratford, fellow actor Stephen Lewis; three years later Grant would feature in the film Sparrers Can’t Sing alongside Lewis, who also wrote the screenplay.

The two actor’s path would finally cross again in 1969. Lewis had been cast as the dour and officious Inspector Blake in the new London Weekend Television comedy, On the Buses. With veteran musical hall performer Reg Varney as Stan Butler, the show’s main protagonist, a cheeky but downtrodden bus driver, Grant starred as his lecherous conductor, Jack Harper.

On the Buses was an immediate hit and the escapades of Butler and Harper, and their relentless quest to outwit Inspector Blake proved immensely popular with 1970s audiences. As well as its own brand of uniquely British and slightly risqué brand of humour, the show also touched upon contemporary issues and concerns such as the sexual revolution, feminism and the economy. Reflecting the wave of immigration that had taken place during the previous decades, the programme was notable in that it included several black and Asian characters who worked for the Luxton and District Bus Company.

Two feature films, On the Buses (1971) and Mutiny On the Buses (1972) were box office draws, but by 1973, the television show was rapidly running out of steam. The seventh and final series aired from February to May 1973 and the loss of such central character as Arthur Rudge, Butler’s cantankerous brother-in-law, played by Michael Robbins, as well as Butler himself as the series drew to a close meant that it began to take on a different dynamic. As a result of Butler’s departure, Grant’s character was pushed to the forefront. In addition to this, the sitcom’s original writers, Ronald Wolfe and Ronald Chesney had also quit, leaving Grant and Lewis to co-write part of the sixth and all of the seventh series. Nevertheless, a final film, Holiday On the Buses, with Robbins and Varney reprising their roles, was released in 1973.

Above: Gardening Time, the final episode of On the Buses (1973)

After the show finished, its stars struggled to recapture the success they had enjoyed with On the Buses. Reg Varney suffered a severe heart attack in 1981, after which he largely withdrew from acting. Anna Karen who played Butler’s frumpy and hapless sister Olive Rudge, appeared in the spin-off The Rag Trade and Stephen Lewis went on to again star as Inspector Blake in the forgettable Don’t Drink the Water before spending nearly twenty years as Smiler in Last of the Summer Wine, Britain’s longest running sitcom.

Above: Home From Home, the first episode of Don’t Drink the Water (1974)

Frustrated by the belief that his character in On the Buses had led to him being typecast, Grant appeared in the stage show No Sex Please, We’re British as well as numerous pantomimes. His final television appearance was in the 1975 panned pilot, Milk-O, about a randy milkman, with Anna Karen as his long-suffering wife. Yet whilst he enjoyed the success of On the Buses, Grant had done little to prevent his close association with the show, even posing for photos aboard a bus after his third wedding in 1971.

Lack of professional success and mounting financial troubles contributed to Grant being diagnosed as bipolar in the 1987 after he went missing for several days, resurfacing in Dublin and revealing that he had planned to commit suicide, recalling to an interviewer, I felt that I was in a black room with no window and no door, and the walls were coming in towards me. I just felt like screaming. I knew I had to get out, get away. I wanted to die, and I decided to top myself.’ In 1995, he attempted to take his own life but was found by his wife before it was too late.

Grant appeared on stage for the last time in the West End run of Hobson’s Choice in 1996. Moving to Twyning in Gloucestershire soon afterwards, Grant became increasingly reclusive and seemingly settled into quiet retirement. But the demons that plagued him refused to vanish and on 8th November 2003, Grant was found dead in his car as a result of carbon monoxide poisoning.

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