Friday, January 23, 2015

Crude Stereotypes

Having finished work slightly earlier than usual, I caught part of an episode of On The Buses on ITV3 this afternoon.  I remember that when I was eight or nine I thought On The Buses was amusing.  Seen again now it is clearly just a series of corny old gags, rampant sexism and well telegraphed prat falls, all delivered by a cast performing their stereotyped roles as if they were addressing the back row of a music hall.  Which is actually pretty typical of early seventies sitcoms.  Yet, in the years since it was first shown, On The Buses has, in many quarters, become a by word for seventies naffness.  Why, I wondered, as I watched today's episode, has it been singled out for such vilification?  In truth, it was no worse than, say, the BBC's Are You Being Served? or ITV's Love Thy Neighbour.  Indeed, it was infinitely preferable to the latter with its 'hilarious' race jokes - On The Buses might have been sexist, but it certainly wasn't racist.  Perhaps it is simply the fact that it had the misfortune to be a contemporary of the BBC's two slices of working class misery in sitcom form - Till Death Us Do Part and Steptoe and Son - which are generally well regarded and have aged better, which has contributed to the low esteem in which On The Buses is generally held these days.

It also probably doesn't help that On The Buses was followed by several ITV comedies which are now better regarded, most notably Rising Damp. Unlike any of these other sitcoms, On The Buses wasn't really 'about' anything.  Whereas Steptoe and Son could be seen as an examination of a tragic father-son relationship in which the characters' mutual dependency smothers and frustrates the latter's aspirations to rise above the constraints of his working class origins,  On The Buses is just gleefully vulgar slapstick, in which the working class characters have no aspirations beyond bedding 'birds' and boozing.  But, to be fair, Steptoe and Son also frequently focused on vulgarity and slapstick, particularly in its 1970-75 colour incarnation, rather than exploring working class angst.  Ultimately, I can only offer my own reasons for not being a fan of On The Buses. For me it comes down to the way it portrays working class people.  I have no problem with its characters apparent lack of middle class aspirations - it's perfectly OK to be happy with being working class and enjoying its culture.  No, my problem is that it portrays them as being a bunch of idle, feckless bastards who shirk their responsibilities and piss their money away.  Even in the seventies this was a right-wing reactionary view of workers - even though it has been revived by the current Tory government.  Then, as now, the majority of working class people were hard working, toiling through long hours and relatively low pay, most having to scrimp and save to get by whilst, all the while, their alleged 'betters' tut-tutted and disapproved of any luxuries and pleasures they managed to enjoy.  Perhaps I'm reading too much into an ancient sitcom.  Perhaps I've got a chip on my shoulder, coming from a working class background.  Nevertheless, lazy stereotyping of the working classes in this manner is something which always makes me uneasy.

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