Cult Movie: What happened when Reg Varney got off the bus
AS CINEMATIC suicide notes go, The Best Pair Of Legs In The Business is pretty hard to beat. A moth-eaten, end-of-pier British comedy drama that makes the most threadbare of 1970s Carry On films look like Citizen Kane, it sank without trace at the box office and effectively ended the career of its star, Reg Varney, when it limped out to cinemas in 1973.
It should have been very different, of course. Varney was a household name back then thanks to his central role as Stan in the phenomenally successful ITV sitcom On The Buses, which ran so long on the telly it even birthed a trio of equally popular, if undeniably dire, film spin-offs.
Playing a Brylcreamed bus driver with an eye for the ladies and a pair of perpetually raised fingers for authority had limited appeal for Varney though, and when the chance came to stretch his actorly wings and reprise a TV play he'd starred in back in 1968 on the big screen, he jumped at it.
On paper, the role of faded drag act 'Sherry' Sheridan who fritters away what meagre talent he has churning out the same old gags to a sea of disinterested punters in a rundown caravan park must have seemed like strong meat indeed.
For an actor typecast as the cheeky chappie ladies' man, it must have seemed like a chance to go deep into character, dragging out all the pathos and self-loathing that's lurking deep beneath the surface of a failed man who's incapable of loving either his family or his job.
In reality, Varney was badly let down by a production that simply didn't know what to do with such tough material. Varney, all plastered in slap and miserable throughout, is frankly marvellous as the embittered and disappointed trouper who hams it up on stage and spirals out of control off it. He's like Olivier in The Entertainer (1960) as he dredges up his inner demons in all their deeply unpleasant glory.
Where The Best Pair Of Legs In The Business falls utterly flat though is in every other aspect of its production. There's a depressingly faded feel to everything here, bar old Reg, that stretches from the randy teenagers we meet trying to buy condoms for their latest dance hall conquests to the tatty interiors that reek of old fag smoke and formica table tops long left unwiped.
It's an uneasy mix of styles, from Varney's entrancing tragicomedy turn to the supporting cast's 'Confessions Of A Caravan Park' crassness, which makes for a ultimately unsatisfying viewing experience.
The Best Pair Of Legs In The Business was met with zero interest when it slunk out as the bottom half of a flea pit bill with The Best Of Benny Hill, who'd ironically been Varney's straight man back in the cabaret days before TV fame came calling.
Reg Varney would make no more films and forever be remembered as the randy old goat of On The Buses. Given his potential to deliver something much deeper, that's a real shame.