The Guardian ran an article and an obituary today for Reg Varney, a Cockney actor who was associated most with the innuendo-laden TV programme ‘On The Buses’ in the 1970s. He was 92, and he turned out to have been living in Budleigh Salterton, on the East Devon coast. (His death at 92 is not guaranteed to have reduced the average age of Budleigh Salterton, which has a reputation as somewhere the very elderly go.)
Reg Varney first. What was odd about the obituary was, although it mentioned his stint as a cod bus conductor, it completely omitted any mention of the show which made his TV name – ‘The Rag Trade’. This was a really popular TV show in the early sixties, and also made the (TV) reputation of Peter Jones, Miriam Karlin, Sheila Hancock, and, in its later stages, Barbara Windsor. It was set in a clothing sweat-shop, and its half-hour plots always revolved around conflict between the management and the unions (Karlin played the shop steward, and her call of ‘Everybody Out!’ was quite a catchphrase in the early sixties). As far as I know, it was the first, and almost the only sit-com which concerned itself with trade unions, and, since the comic characters were the workers (Varney was a sort of gaffer, with the girl machinists, and yet against them), it was perhaps the first programme to show unions in a favourable light – the 1950s Peter Sellers film ‘I’m All Right Jack’ did precisely the opposite. In a way, in that way that popular culture does and did, it taught its viewers far more about industrial relations than any documentary good have done. There was an assumption, quite radical for its day, that the management was not always in the right. Perhaps it’s been forgotten because it was, unforgivably, one of the series that the BBC erased, not having a notion that old tape might one day be interesting for what it showed, rather than the number of minutes for which it might be re-used. Varney ought to be remembered for ‘The Rag Trade’ rather than the very inferior cheap-joke bus scripts he was later acting out.
Budleigh Salterton is a private place, slightly inaccessible – it had a railway station until the 1930s, one which was axed long before Dr. Beeching. It has a pebbly beach, not a sandy one, and a part-gentrified air about it. It doesn’t attract many families with children, so it has a sort of strange charm. It has a cafe on the beach which looks as if it has been lifted from half-a-century ago. However, it also has another attraction – a nudist beach, or rather a stretch of beach on which clothes are not required. This beach is rarely crowded, although as you will see, the coastal tripper boats move in as far as they can. This cannot be in the spirit of voyeurism; it’s more in the spirit of the science of gerontology. And yes I have: because I could. I must have been mad – it is not only stony but descends in steep shelves very quickly into deep water, and I can’t swim, naked or not. But try everything once, eh? And I have always been fond of the three signs which abut one another on the way to the haven for the naked. They tell a nice story. Here it is:
If the binoculars don’t get you, the rocks will…