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Good riddance to the 1970s

Yesterday, while briefly surfing Britain’s terrestrial TV channels in hope of something amusing to watch, I came across a film based on the old UK “comedy”, On the Buses, which chronicles the life of a bunch of London bus drivers and conductors. Made in the late 60s and early 70s, the series adopted the leery, bawdy humour of the Carry On Films, although unlike the Carry On movies at their best, (like the wonderful Carry on Up the Khyber) lacked the sort of great gags that to this day can make me laugh out loud. On the Buses can be safely relegated to a footnote of British television history, thank goodness.

It was quite a shock watching the film. It was a reminder of how greatly Britain has changed since the early 70s. For starters, the constant leeriness towards women, the assumption that any vaguely attractive woman was nothing more than mattress-fodder, makes even yours truly – no fan of political correctness – feel uneasy. One of the main themes of the story is how the manager, in a drive to improve the efficiency of the layabout male staff, decides to hire a group of women drivers. The men regard this move as a disaster and a threat to “their” jobs (probably correctly). What is particularly striking is how the shop steward of the bus-drivers’ union makes it clear that as far as his union is concerned, women have no place in a bus, except either as a customer or as someone he can molest. For any trade unionist watching this film today, the message must be most uncomfortable in that it reinforces the important idea that free markets and competition are in general good news in particular for women as well as racial groups often subject to discrimination, as noted U.S. economists Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell have pointed out.

There were a few good things about the 1970s – although it is sometimes hard to think of any – but watching this low-point of British cinema only made me realise how much life has improved since then.

39 comments to Good riddance to the 1970s

  • Yes, I find the leeriness rather disturbing, too.

    I am trying to think of anything similar before the Carry On era. I can’t. Is on-screen leeriness solely a phenomenon of the 60s and 70s? And, if so, why?

  • Verity

    My favourite line from a Carry On film, that got a huge, prolonged laugh, was Kenneth Williams dressed in a Roman toga running across the marble floors in his palace crying, “Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in fa me!”

    Those films really had some clever writers.

  • Johnathan

    Verity, what is also true is that the CO films were full of historical allusions. You cannot get half of the gags in many of those films without knowing a bit of history.


  • Julian Taylor

    On The Buses still represents, at least for me, one of the very worst aspects of the 1970’s. Those include Slater Walker, Harold Wilson, German anarcho-terrorism, Whitbread Trophy Bitter, Dennis Healey, the sugar shortage, the truly dreadful Colt 45 ‘beer’, Leo Sayer, James Callaghan and his winter of discontent and many more predominantly Labour-induced hardships.

    The Carry On movies mostly started life as public information films IIRC – Carry On Sergeant (1958), Carry On Nurse (1959), Carry On Teacher (1959), Carry On Constable (1959) were all designed to provide information, albeit under the guise of comedy, on their respective subjects.

  • Verity

    My god, what kind of information were people supposed to get from a Carry On film? What not to do with a daffodil?

    Jonathan makes a very good point. These films were hugely popular and were full of historical allusions, and the audience got them! Those same films today would probably find an audience of glum people wondering when someone was going to say something funny.

  • RAB

    Is your channel zapper broken Johnathan?
    It got much worse than that (and much better, but anon).
    There was a point a few days ago when I was watching a movie in one room, my wife, Under the greenwood tree in another and my mother gorgeing on Robin’s Nest and George and Mildred in another.
    Surely two of the worst of all time.
    Then there was Bringing up Baby with Grant and Hepburn, the Philadelphia Story and Harvey.
    The difference between standard brit sitcoms and alltime great American screwball comedies discuss…

  • Andrew Kinsman

    THose were the days: overpriced British built rubbish “the envy of the world” sold on HP. Did anything good come out of the 1970s? Anything authentic?

    I wonder if ITV could be persuaded to air the two sequels, Mutiny on the Buses and Holiday on the buses.

  • GCooper

    Andrew Kinsman asks:

    ” Did anything good come out of the 1970s? Anything authentic?”

    Oh, yes. It might be an era best remembered for rusting British Leyland cars, the compulsory adoption of Leftism in our universities, polyester clothes, strikes, shortages, blackouts and rampant trade unionism…

    But it also gave us sublime music, from the early stirrings of the Early Music renaissance to some of the most inventive Rock music ever produced.

  • John K

    I too watched a few minutes of “On the Buses.” God, how they have aged! They are now historical records of how bad things were back in the 70’s. I find myself sympathising with the inspector Blakey, faced with the impossible job of trying to get some work out of his bone idle collection of shirkers.

    The frightening thing is that “On the Buses” was the biggest grossing film in Britain in 1971; it even beat “Diamonds are Forever.” Truly, the country was going down the toilet back then, and you can realise why people thought we had to be better off in the “Common Market”. It was a counsel of despair.

  • “Do you have Bluetits?”

    “No, we have central heating.”

  • RAB

    GCooper, Rock on!
    I am pulling up In Memory of Elizabeth Reed as we speak.
    John K, Compare Passport to Pimlico to Mutiny on the buses. You’re right. Pimlico time we knew who we were. By “the Buses” we had lost the plot.

  • I quite like On the Buses. It’s very dated and complete rubbish of course and I cringe at some of its rather sexist politics but I find it good fun even if it’s not that funny (with the exception of Michael Robbins’ character).

    Andrew Kinsman: Mutiny on the Buses was actually shown during very early hours of the same day on BBC ONE.

  • Leering before Carry Ons?

    Better off overseas?

    Would you like your doubles entendres 1950s French Style?

  • Ted Schuerzinger

    The 1970s may have been crap, but at least they didn’t give us the “generation gap” movies that we got in the 1960s, like I’ll Take Sweden or Where Angels Go Trouble Follows. What were Hollywood producers thinking?

  • veryretired

    I’d love to say something really profound about the ’70’s, but I was much younger, and there were a lot of parties and girls. Sex wasn’t fatal then.

    I know the economy went tits up and the world situation sucked and all, but I was having way too much fun to care very much.

  • guy herbert

    Why was Slater Walker a bad thing, Julian? I’m prepared to believe unit trusts a bad thing, and the Tory Reform Group, so maybe Peter Walker doesn’t look so good in retrospect. But what’s wrong with asset-stripping?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    GCooper, I agree with you about some of the rock music from the 70s. I am a bit of a fan of The Stranglers, Roxy Music, Bowie, etc. And Ipswich Town won the FA Cup in 1978.

    John K, I don’t believe it: On the Buses grossed more money than Diamonds Are Forever? Kerist.

  • It wouldn’t surprise me Johnathan.

    In 1976 the sex comedy* Adventures of a Taxi Driver had far more bums on seats than the same year’s Taxi Driver.

    For the would be learned scholar of British mucky movies, from the “academic studies of nudism” of the 50’s to the dawn of the home video, I highly recommend Simon Sheridan’s Keeping the British End Up: Four Decades of Saucy Cinema

    *Warning, product may not contain either sex or comedy.

  • David Davies

    What I find baffling about “On the Buses” is that the workshy drivers and conductors were the heroes and the inspector trying to run a decent service was the villain.
    Apparently, it did not get through to the largely working class and public transport-reliant audience, that the people causing them misery were the characters they were cheering on.

  • Luniversal

    Yeah, you only have to look at Nuts or Zoo to realise how far we’ve ‘progressed’ since the bad old days when men regarded women as sex objects. No male under 30 would dream of doing that, would he?

    Is there anything sillier than a votary of the superstition known as ‘progress’ trying to lord it over the past? ‘Look how far we’ve come…’ round in circles.

  • Michael Farris

    I saw about 15 minutes of this once (on the end of a videotape of something else) and couldn’t understand 90 per cent of what they were saying. It would really require subtitles or redubbing for an American audience. (Not that I especially wanted to know what they were saying j)
    Apart from that, the ‘humor’ seemed to be (roughly)TITS! LOOK AT THAT!!! TITS! DID YOU SEE????? TITS!!!!!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Luniversal, I am sure that much of human behaviour has not improved much, but it is a sign of progress – something which you evidently don’t think ever happens – that the sort of crass behaviour celebrated in a film as I described could not possibly be made now. Perhaps you think we should return to the age of the Caveman. Probably suit you quite well, I am sure!

  • David Fleming

    I lived in Britain as a foreign student (school in Wales, undergraduate in London, and postgraduate at Oxford) from 1969 to 1982, and then worked in the City until 1983 before leaving for Canada and eventually the United States. The more I think now about the seventies in Britain, the more I realize that this decade has to have been the worst period of the last century for the United Kingdom. Forget all the strikes and general bolshiness – seeing Denis Healey crawling to the IMF did little for one’s confidence in the nation’s finances, believe me. I gather it’s all very different now, but whether that is substance, or merely tone, I can’t tell.

  • There was some decent music out of the 70s (well granted most of the Pop music was dire) but certainly the rock and prog genre produced some decent stuff. Movie wise it was pretty lame and not much decent TV either.

  • GCooper

    Johnathan Pearce writes:

    “Luniversal, I am sure that much of human behaviour has not improved much, but it is a sign of progress – something which you evidently don’t think ever happens – that the sort of crass behaviour celebrated in a film as I described could not possibly be made now.”

    I think that’s a little unfair on Luniversal, actually (not something I’d usually say).

    The myth of progress is one of the sustaining notions of Liberal-Leftism. It’s the Whigg interpretation of history and the basis which the the Left uses to describe its bone-headed policies as ‘progressive’.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    GCooper, I think the problem here is definition. I certainly don’t use the word progress to suggest some inevitable process at work. That would obviously be wrong. I can think of a few cases where things have regressed, such as our dire current state of civil liberties, or education, or the arts, and so on. And whole societies can regress and turn inwards, like China in the Middle Ages, for example.

    I think classical liberals and libertarians should try to reclaim the idea of progress so that it is no longer some dumb utopian dream but an understanding of how human society can get measurably better. The impression I got from Luniversal’s rather snide comment was that he believes nothing ever significantly changes for the better. Or maybe Luniversal brings out the worst in me!

    AID: some of the TV in the 1970s was quite funny, such as Reggie Perrin, Porridge, Monty Python…….

  • Euphrat Vojnic

    The claim that progress is a myth is just too funny for words! As a woman born in Europe and now living in the USA, I have opportunities that could not be taken for granted just 15 years ago and were almost unthinkable when my mother was born. There have never been such a high proportion of the worlds population who did not have to worry about starvation, freedom of expression is the norm for more people than ever before and the technology for and social development for a global society which gradually sidelines the all powerful state is being contructed before our very eyes.

    We are swimming in progress and only some very foolish conservatives of left & right cannot see that. And that is a good thing because it makes it harder for them to slow it down.

  • GCooper

    David Davies writes:

    “What I find baffling about “On the Buses” is that the workshy drivers and conductors were the heroes and the inspector trying to run a decent service was the villain.”

    I hate sounding like a sociology lecturer, but one does need to contextualise this.

    These attitudes to work and to women didn’t spring fully formed on New Year’s Eve 1970, but have antecedents in British behaviour that are quite clearly traceable.

    The ‘them and us’ approach to work can be found in any number of popular comedies (let alone socialist tracts), while ‘saucy’ comedy has its roots so far back in British history as to qualify for native status.

    What happened during the 1970s was a loosening of inhibitions which allowed the merely saucy to become the aggressive and demeaning, and workplace behaviour to tip over into ‘Red Robbo’ territory.

    One could usefully mine the archives of the 1960s ‘satire’ movement to find the source of the beetles in the pit props. And there is a useful thesis to be written on its Gramscian effects and purpose.

  • GCooper

    Euphrat Vojnic writes:

    “We are swimming in progress…”

    That is entirely too simplistic, I’m afraid. What we are swimming in is a sea of contradictions. Some things are better for some people, while they are worse for others. Sometimes even for the same people.

  • Verity

    Speaking of workshy, I saw some reruns of a British comedy – I assume from the 70s – that was about a clothing factory and, it goes without saying, the bolshie workers, who were presented as lovable. The catchphrase was somebody blowing a whistle and shouting, “Everybody out!” That the foreman could get the clothes made to fulfill customer orders was regarded as hysterical.

  • Kim du Toit

    I for one loved the British “saucy” comedies — and Reg Varney’s Buses movies were just excellent.

    I especially loved Reg’s sister Olive, and her foul husband George — just a perfect satire of the horrible way men treat women.

    I always did wonder, however, how the ugly conductor Stan managed to score so often.

    Oh, and on a related note: did you know that the Carry On’s archetypal Cockney Sid James was actually born in Johannesburg? (At the same hospital where I was born, incidentally, some forty years later.)

    Anyway, we do comedy wrong to judge it by contemporary societal standards. Of course it’s dated — try getting a smile out of 1920s vaudeville — but it’s a great mirror of the times.

    Crap movies have always outdrawn the good ones, simply because there are more proles than intelligentsia. It doesn’t reflect on anything more than the difference in numbers — it’s certainly not a sign of the Apocalypse or anything like that.

    How else can one explain 1997, where the über-crap Titanic beat out As Good As It Gets, Good Will Hunting, The Full Monty and L.A. Confidential for Best Picture?

    And let’s be honest, here: the ersatz Bond movie Live And Let Die was itself about as big a piece of crap as was ever filmed, despite the huge production cost.

    In comedy terms, you can never beat the local funnyman, which is why Buses beat Bond, at the British box office.


  • Johnathan Pearce

    Kim, I am a bit surprised that a fine fella like you should like such puerile shite like On the Buses. There are no guns involved.

  • Kim,

    Considering he didn’t arrive in Britain until he was 33 – on Christmas day 1946 – I’ve always wondered whether Sid James (born Sydney Joel Cohen) spoke with a South African accent when he was “off duty”. Certainly his early theatrical resumes claimed he was able to do a Cockney accent, but I don’t know if it’s possible for anyone to put on a fake voice non-stop for 30 years.

    Lawrence Harvey, the other “British star” of the period who was actually a South African Jew, also managed to mask his vocal origins pretty well. Except in Expresso Bongo that is, I don’t have a clue what accent he’s supposed to have in that film but there’s definately more than a hint of Lithuanian Springbok in the mix. Incidently Harvey was a real bastard towards Sid.

  • Verity

    Laurence Harvey was Lithuanian. He may have been Jewish; I don’t know.

    Jonathan, yes, they should do a new series for Kim. “On the Buses with Guns”.

    Kim, yes, comedy is a great mirror of the times. But some gets dusty and falls apart 40 years later, and some doesn’t. (I take your point about Vaudville.) Yet, Mae West movies are still funny, I’ll bet you agree. The Marx Brothers are still funny. So are Carry On films and Fawlty Towers. I can still laugh at ‘Allo, ‘Allo. I don’t know how you would explain that. (Of course, you may think none of the above are still funny …)

  • Euphrat Vojnic

    That is entirely too simplistic, I’m afraid.

    Are you saying I do not have many many more opportunities than my mother and grandmother? Or that it is NOT true that there have never been such a high proportion of the worlds population who did not have to worry about starvation? Or are there really LESS people for who freedom of expression is the norm now? Explain where my comment is wrong.

  • David Davies

    On seconds thoughts-
    Did you know that Reg Varney opened the very first ATM in the world? In Enfield North London in 1967.
    So perhaps he represents progress after all.

  • Luniversal

    “Luniversal, I am sure that much of human behaviour has not improved much, but it is a sign of progress – something which you evidently don’t think ever happens – that the sort of crass behaviour celebrated in a film as I described could not possibly be made now. ”

    No, we have our own sorts of crass behaviour– too close to home for us to recognise yet, but future generations will smugly and ignorantly deride them, just as we (not me, though) deride those of our parents and grandparents. It’s only a change in fashion. Exaltation of ‘progress’ is a fancy way of saying we prefer what we’re used to, or merely that we accept the temporary status quo.

    Human nature is little different from what it was in the times of the cavemen (who may have had higher average intelligence than today’s urbanised hominoids, BTW– more cognitive challenges then) and if you look at it from the right angle, little has really changed except the superficies of material existence: a few tinpot labour-saving devices, a few more elaborate ways of distracting ourselves. Gullible women blathering on about their ‘opportunities’ are neither wiser nor happier than their supposedly downtrodden mothers. Some feminists have belatedly and bitterly understood that you can’t Have It All after all.

    GCooper is on the right lines. The sum total of happiness per capita is pretty steady from age to age and country to country, apart from occasional brief convulsions such as the ‘revolutions’ Samizdata gets starry-eyed about, which sensible folk dislike and want over as soon as possible. One of the great debates among contemporary psychologists is why the enormous rise in ‘affluence’ and ’empowerment’ has not made people any happier than half a century ago when they were living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. Well, any conservative (a real one, not an ex-Trot neocon) could tell you why.

    People are hardwired to worry. They will never be satisfied, but their pride prevents them admitting that 90% of change is unnecessary, so they rationalise this OCD fiddling with the crust of existence as some sort of triumph over nature and the past.

    If you really believe in the sucker’s creed of progress, you are just another species of that banal and highly dangerous fellow, the political utopian. I always thought that libertarians were inverted collectivists, and that Stalin and Ayn Rand were sisters under the skin. Better a dim, corrupt time-serving political hack for a leader than an idealist any day.

  • GCooper

    Euphrat Vojnic writes:

    ” Explain where my comment is wrong.”

    It is wrong because you are cherry picking. You are highlighting areas in which life has improved for some, while ignoring those for whom it has got worse.

    Moreover, you are adopting the extremely questionable view that ‘progress’ is an unmitigated good, without acknowledging that bad frequently comes hand in hand with good.

    Lniversal has explained it very well.

  • steve

    A friend of mine was a bus conductor in London at the time of “On The Buses”. His job, when the driver had parked his empty bus up a side street, was to stand on the corner and watch for the next bus on their route to go past. Then he’d signal to the driver so they could follow the other bus – at a respectful distance – and not have to pick up passengers.

    It also wasn’t unusual for one bus to follow another bus round a roundabout several times, to see which one would lose their nerve first and go first and thus having to pick up passengers.

    So perhaps “On The Buses” was more of a documentary.