Reg Varney: The Best Pair of Legs in the Business
This article was first published on the Network website.
Reg Varney was no stranger to the grim reality of show business. He’d started off as a child performer at the Plumstead Radical Club in the 1920s, playing ‘Tiger Rag’ on the piano and keeping the audience laughing with his patter between the songs. Over the following decades, he worked his way around the music hall and variety circuit and, like most performers, had his fair share of ups and downs. For a while after the war, it looked like his double act with Benny Hill would make his fortune, but Hill’s dislike of live performing ended that partnership, and by the late 1950s Varney’s career was struggling. His big break came when he was cast in Chesney and Wolfe’s sitcom ‘The Rag Trade’, which was a huge success for the BBC, and Varney rapidly became a household name.
He worked steadily through the 1960s, and his celebrity led to a particularly historic moment when he was chosen by Barclay’s Bank to make the opening withdrawal from a cashpoint at their Enfield branch – the first working cash dispenser in the world. Heady stuff, but Varney really hit the big time in 1969 with the runaway success of ‘On the Buses’ which associated him forever with the role of cheeky bus driver Stan Butler. It was however, just before boarding ‘On the Buses’ that Varney appeared in a straight play produced by Yorkshire Television called ‘The Best Pair of Legs in the Business’. Transmitted late at night just after Christmas in 1968, it drew some appreciative reviews and the attention of theatrical agent Leslie (brother of Lew) Grade who was so enamoured of the play that he immediately wanted to make a movie version. In the end it would be more than three years until the movie was made and another two until it was released before vanishing into obscurity. Since then it has only been glimpsed a few times on television, generally to appreciative responses – not least from Jarvis Cocker who regards it as one of his favourite films – until it now finally has the DVD release it deserves.
‘The Best Pair of Legs in the Business’ tells the story of Sherry Sheridan, a washed-up entertainer and drag act who has ended up performing in a bleak caravan site. He is estranged from his son, and his wife Mary is having an affair with the site owner. The film is a pitiless look at the life of a failure. Sherry is a mean, manipulative and generally unpleasant man who has alienated everyone in his life, but still clings, improbably to the idea that his big break is just around the corner. Varney had encountered many entertainers like Sherry during his career “Living year after year in pantomime – I knew these men” and the compassion that he brings to his performance is surely in part due to Varney’s awareness that his own career could just as easily have ended up like Sherry’s. Even a hardened show business agent like Leslie Grade, who must have destroyed just as many careers as he started, primarily wanted to make a film version because he found the original play so moving. ‘Best Pair’ is the unvarnished truth about life in the armpit of the entertainment business. It’s about struggling people “hanging on in quiet desperation” and Varney’s tour de force as Sherry is brilliantly supported by Diana Coupland as his wife Mary, and Lee Montague as the site owner Charlie Green.
The film was shot in the summer of 1972, and for Varney it was a welcome change after making three ‘On the Buses’ spin-off movies on autopilot. Kevin Laffan’s claustrophobic original play was expanded, mainly the inclusion of a scene where Sherry pays a disastrous visit to his son’s prospective in-laws resulting in humiliation for the whole Sheridan family. It’s in scenes like this that Varney’s performance graduates from the merely good to the outstanding. He later said that he cried so much during one sequence that when he arrived home he sobbed uncontrollably for the rest of the night: “I lived the part”. ‘Best Pair’ is so unrelenting in its misery that Varney understandably commented “This is the biggest gamble of my career. Filmgoers may well say I’ve bitten off more than I can chew” and later added “I just hope that the public are loyal and faithful’.
In some ways he needn’t have worried as filmgoers barely got to see it anyway. Although it was completed by July 1972, EMI clearly had no idea how to market the film and it went unreleased until 1974. In the interim, Varney had left ‘On the Buses’ and in an attempt to demonstrate his range signed up with Lew Grade’s ATV to make the eponymous ‘Reg Varney’, a music and sketch show which co-starred Benny Hill stalwart Henry McGee. Sadly for Varney, the public didn’t take to the new-style Reg, and his piano playing was memorably mocked by Stanley Baxter in his cruel parody ‘Thumpalong with Reg Varnish’. By the time ‘Best Pair’ finally achieved a limited theatrical release, Varney was struggling for work, and ironically the film was merely the supporting feature to a ‘The Best of Benny Hill’ – a compilation of Hill’s television sketches.
Although Varney tried to get back into sitcoms with a series called ‘Down the Gate’ his television career was effectively over. He went back to variety and worked on cruise ships and one-man tours, all of which were a good deal more successful than Sherry’s drag act. But it’s a great shame that, unlike today, when comedians like Billy Connolly and Eddie Izzard can easily move into straight acting, the same opportunity eluded Varney. Sir Bernard Miles was in no doubt of his ability: “He’s got a funny face, a marvellous ear for dialogue and he’s a great technician…He really should be at the National Theatre, but the box has claimed him. It’s their loss…” It was their loss, but at least we have ‘The Best Pair of Legs in the Business’ to remind us of Varney’s exceptional acting talent.