“It’s a large woman running amuck with an umbrella.”
The Runaway Bus is a peculiar little film written and directed by Val Guest. It’s a fairly tepid crime-caper thriller, but the addition of the late great British comedian Frankie Howerd adds a light comedic strain to this otherwise-average film. The film begins in fog-shrouded Heathrow Airport, and with all air traffic suspended, hundreds of frustrated, angry passengers are diverted to airports and bus terminals all over the country. Meanwhile a gold bullion robbery takes place elsewhere in the airport, and the mastermind of the theft–known only to the police as the mysterious “Banker”–vanishes along with the loot. Detectives are left scratching their heads. In the meantime a busload of passengers, driven by the hapless relief driver Percy Lamb (Frankie Howerd) leaves the airport.
Lamb has his hands full with the complaining passengers–including a cantankerous umbrella-wielding woman (Margaret Rutherford), the mild-mannered Henry Waterman (Toke Townley), Peter Jones (Terence Alexander), a suave pilot who shows up at the last minute, Ernest Schroeder (George Coulouris), Janie Grey (Belinda Grey), a busty young woman who’s addicted to horror novels, and a sensible airport stewardess, “Nikki” Nicholls (songstress Petula Clark). It quickly becomes apparent that there’s something odd afoot. And as Percy Lamb attempts to drive the bus through the fog, mishap after mishap occurs while the plot–and the fog–thickens.
The Runaway Bus would be an average film, but the presence of Frankie Howerd alters the tone considerably. While the other characters appear to be locked in a serious drama, Howerd bungles through the plot with his campy persona. At times, his character plays against the obliviousness of Janie Grey as she reads excerpts from her horror novels blissfully unaware of the very real danger that surrounds her. The jokes are definitely on Howerd as he stumbles (sometimes literally) into trouble, and it’s wonderful to see him in this early role–still developing and still marvelously funny.