Reginald Routemaster Varney was a highly revered actor from old London town who starred in more transport-oriented British television shows than you can mention without your eyes misting up and your voice going all croaky and nostalgic. His most famous role was “Reg” (a character name inspired by the actor’s real moniker) in Where Did I Leave My Tram?, an acerbic comedy drama about the unionization of the tram industry in 1970s England. He also appeared as “Rog” (pronounced “Rodge”, short for Roger) in Bus Over The Khyber, a World War II comedy about the co-opting of bright red London buses during the war’s Eastern campaign, and as “Dave” in Last Train to Badgers Mount, a sharp-edged sitcom about the Beeching railway closures of the 1960s. Moreover, he played a 10-second cameo role as “Reggy” the bus mechanic in the 1962 Cliff Richard movie vehicle, Summer Holiday.
Asked in 1975 by a serious journalist whether he considered himself typecast because he always seemed to be holding a steering wheel on screen, he replied: “Typecast? Me? Nahhhhhh.”
Varney was born in Elephant & Castle in a rough part of London on February 23, 1910. He quickly acquired a second-hand Bouncing Bubba pram, and was pushed around the streets of the city for nine hours every day by his mother, Philistina, who was homeless. It is said in 24 of his 26 biographies, as well as in his 1976 autobiography, Fares Please, that he would cry out with unbridled joy whenever he saw a bus, a tram, a train, a car, a motorcycle, or even another pram. He soon amassed an enviable collection of wheeled playthings, including a record 4,890 Dinky toys, but one day they were all stolen by a great big bully at school.
First role for Reg
While performing in a school assembly in Elephant & Castle about impoverished zombies in Haiti, Varney was spotted by a talent scoutmaster, James “Jamboree” Baden-Powell, and invited to high tea at his cottage. The pages of the relevant chapter are all rather roughly torn out of every surviving copy of the biography that deals with this episode, so we may never know exactly what transpired. However, soon young Reg was on 10 shillings’ pocket money a fortnight and aiming his sights at Rada.
Love and marriage
Rada Davies was a comely redhead who sat next to Varney in his metalwork class and was known to be impressed with his skilful lathe work. They married when they were underage and shacked up together in a lock-up garage on the outskirts of Primrose Hill, London. They had two children, Reg and Rada, and a big dog, Reg.
Why the transport, Reg?
Varney was often asked why he was drawn to comedies, comedy dramas, and plain dramas that had public transport as their main theme. He never really answered that question satisfactorily.
A popular TV face, which was often screwed up in amusement, Varney was often asked to make public appearances at special events in London. One cold winter's day he opened the first of London’s telephone boxes, in Lisle Street. It is said that he had enjoyed a liquid lunch at a pub beforehand, and that he blessed the box by coating the interior with his own urine. The citizens of England have followed his example ever since. Varney also inaugurated the city’s first non-gangster-run pawnshop, and a brothel for small children in Petticoat Lane. He was scheduled to cut the ribbon at the opening of Hounslow Bus Garage on February 23, 1985, but tragically slipped on a vegetable samosa on the pavement and died almost instantaneously. His final words are said to have been "I'm only going as far as Plaistow."
His funeral was described by his family as “a right old send-off. We done him proud”. The tram bearing his coffin was followed by a cortege of 180 London buses, staffed by attractive miniskirted “clippies”, or female bus conductors.
He’s still on the telly
We miss dear old Reg, life’s not the same, etcetera, etcetera, but you can still catch the cheeky old blighter on UK Gold and other shamelessly nostalgic channels most days of the week. He usually has a gearstick in his hand and a twinkle in his eye.