REG VARNEY EXHIBITION NOW ENDED
BUT THE MUSEUM IS WORTH VISITING IF YOU ARE IN THE
Not just bawdy and brash Stan Butler
You won’t find too many of the 12,000+ members of the ‘On the Buses’ Fan Club in genteel
Budleigh Salterton. Most of them would be surprised to learn that this sedate little so-called ‘health resort’
on the coast of East Devon was the home of Reg Varney. Yet it was here that the star of the 1970s’ TV series, celebrated
for its bawdy, brash and often politically incorrect humour chose to settle in retirement, ending his days at the grand old
age of 92. Budleigh is of course famous for the longevity of its residents.
Raised in the very different surroundings of Canning Town in
London’s East End, the star of The Rag Trade and On the Buses felt at home in Devon. ‘I love the look of Budleigh
Salterton,’ he is reported as saying within a few minutes of arriving in the town. And Varney, as the local paper put
it, became ‘Budleigh Salterton’s adopted son.’
it’s in Budleigh, rather than in Canning Town, or in Enfield – where he lived for many years during his long career
in showbusiness – that the centenary of the actor’s birth is being marked. An exhibition ‘Our Little Clown
– a tribute to Reg Varney’ opens in Budleigh’s Fairlynch Museum on 25 March, accompanied by the publication
of a biography of the same title. There’s talk of a vintage bus tour of the town, a celebration of his life in words
and music and even a bus created on Budleigh’s famous beach by the local pebble artist.
The exhibition itself will surprise with its insights into Varney’s life. Opened by his daughter
Jeanne who lives in the town, it makes extensive use of autobiographical material as well as unpublished personal papers and
photos. Visitors to the exhibition who knew him as ‘Buses’ driver Stan Butler – Varney learnt to drive a
bus for his role in the TV series – will discover that he took his first steps in the world of entertainment as a 15-year-old
self-taught pianist and accordion-player in the tough world of East End working men’s clubs.
He trained not at drama school but
through experiences on stage. Some were triumphant, others were harsh and humiliating. Through it all he became a professional,
working with the likes of Benny Hill, and, almost, Peter Sellars: performing in cinemas, as a ventriloquist, in pantomime,
as a Shakespearean clown and in a little-known but much praised role as a tragicomic straight actor which turned out to be
his greatest gamble. With some heart attacks on the way.
And then there are his paintings… and his writing – the Fairlynch
exhibition owes its title to Varney’s autobiography The Little Clown, published in 1990, but sadly out of print.
The exhibition has been generously
supported by a grant from The Mackintosh Foundation.
‘Our Little Clown’ opens on 25 March and runs until 30 September 2016.
Fairlynch Museum is open daily except Mondays, 2.00-4.30 pm. Admission is free. Proceeds from the sale of the booklet Our
Little Clown are being divided between Fairlynch Museum and the British Heart Foundation.