On the buses
Date of Birth: 17 December 1926, Poplar, London, UK
Birth Name: Stephen Lewis
Nicknames: Stephen Lewis, Stephen Cato
In 1960, he wrote Sparrers Can’t Sing, a play about life in the East End that relied heavily on actors’ improvisations. It was a success and was released as a film (Sparrows Can’t Sing) in 1963, with a cast that included Barbara Windsor and Roy Kinnear – although even their talents could not sell the social realist dialogue to a global audience.
The New York Times sniffed: “This isn’t a picture for anyone with a logical mind or an ear for language. The gabble of Cockney spoken here is as incomprehensible as the reasoning of those who speak it.” It was the first English-language film to be released in the US with subtitles.
As Lewis’s career illustrates, a great number of the comedy stars of the 1960s and 1970s came from serious theatre with proudly socialist roots, while television and film started to tap into a growing appetite for working-class drama and comedy. Throughout the 1960s, Lewis took a series of small roles culminating in a large part in the 1969 television play, Mrs Wilson’s Diary, alongside another Theatre Workshop regular called Bob Grant.
That same year, he landed a role in a new series called On the Buses, which also featured Grant as a lascivious bus ticket-collector teamed up with Reg Varney, his equally Dionysian mate.
Although the show was undoubtedly rude, crude and occasionally prejudiced, it offered genuinely witty reflections on the nature of 1970s class conflict. In the world of On the Buses, workers were constantly on strike and after more money; managerial characters such as Lewis’s Blakey were exploitative snobs who thought they had authority just because they wore a badge.
It was plain where the audience's sympathies were supposed to lie: many was the time that a bus “hilariously” ran over poor Blakey’s foot or a bucket of water was tipped over his head. The cry: “I ’ate you Butler” was born of impotent rage. Although Varney the actor was Lewis’s senior, it was still Varney’s character, Reg, that got all the “crumpet”. Lewis was only in his early forties when he took the role of Blakey, but playing ageing authority figures became his stock in trade. In the 1970s, he appeared in the television sequel to On The Buses, Don’t Drink the Water, three big-screen outings of On The Buses and two cinematic sex comedies (Adventures of a Taxi Driver, Adventures of a Plumber’s Mate). He later had parts in the films Personal Services (1987) and The Krays (1990).
In 1988, he played a new character in the long-running BBC series Last of the Summer Wine as the character Clem “Smiler” Hemmingway which he thoroughly enjoyed. “It’s got so much charm,” he said of the show. “I don’t think any other country in the world has comedy like that.” From 1995 to 1997, he appeared in the equally gentle sitcom Oh, Doctor Beeching! In 2007, he stepped down from Last of the Summer Wine because of ill health.
Stephen Lewis remained a committed socialist. In a stroke of irony, however, in 1981 he was hired to promote CH coaches, in the character of Blakey; it was the first private bus company to break the public transport monopoly of Cardiff city council. This was exactly the kind of Thatcherite revolution of which Blakey would probably have approved.
In his diaries, Tony Benn recalled campaigning with Lewis in 1984, describing him as “very direct” and “extremely amusing”.
Date of Birth: 1926, Wood Green, London, UK
Birth Name: Pat Ashton
Pat Ashton was an actor for over four decades. Probably her most important TV role was that of Annie, wife of a burglar (Bob Hoskins) who comes out of prison to find that his old friend (John Thaw) has moved in, in Thick As Thieves (1974). When Yorkshire TV declined a second series, the writers Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais took the idea to the BBC, where it was developed into the much-loved series Porridge.
Pat was born and raised in Wood Green, north London. During her early years, the piano was the focus of entertainment at home, with her brother Richard playing all the popular songs of the day. Her grandmother had been a trapeze artist, performing in front of the tsar in Russia, and Pat quickly became fascinated with music hall, learned to tap-dance from an early age and went on to study singing with Manlio Di Veroli.After the second world war she ran "concert parties", essentially variety shows, some of which, at the Gaumont cinema in Wood Green, featured the young Barry Took. After finding an agent, Pat performed at seaside resorts around England in summer season shows.In the early 60s, trading on her singing and dancing, she toured Europe with Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in Oh! What a Lovely War.
Her early West End shows included Half a Sixpence and The Match Girls, and later she appeared in Stepping Out.
She also performed regularly at the Players' theatre in London.One of her first TV breaks was taking the role of Fanny Cornforth opposite Oliver Reed in Ken Russell's Dante's Inferno (1967), a film in the Omnibus series on the life of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, this later led to a small role in Russell's 1971 film The Devils.By the 1970s other TV producers had picked up on her popular blonde, cockney persona. In fact, in 1970 she understudied Barbara Windsor in the Ned Sherrin-produced musical Sing a Rude Song, based on the life of music hall singer Marie Lloyd, and successfully took the lead role when Windsor was struck down with laryngitis.
Pat took TV roles in On the Buses (1971, and appeared in two spinoff films), Both Ends Meet (1972, with Dora Bryan), Yus My Dear (1976, with Arthur Mullard), Rooms (1977), The Benny Hill Show (1972-80), The Gaffer (1981-83, with Bill Maynard) and Tripper's Day (1984, with Leonard Rossiter).