One of the most enduring and endearing of ITV sit-coms, On the Buses lasted for a tremendous seven series – from 1969 to 1973, and a staggering 74 episodes. This all-time classic made Olive a national, figure as the downtrodden, dowdy wife of Arthur Rudge.
Born in Durban, South Africa in 1940, she says, “When I was six I decided I wanted to be a vet, which really pleased my parents. But then my father took me to see National Velvet and I knew instantly I wanted to be an actress. Unfortunately, my parents were pretty much against the idea.”
At 17 after the death of her father Anna, her mother and sister decided to take the trip of a lifetime starting in the UK. It was to be short-lived for Anna and to shape her life forever.
Whilst in the UK she enrolled in a London drama school. “I insisted on staying in the UK to follow my passion. My family continued with their travels and I stayed in a girls’ hostel in Paddington.
“I shared a room with two other girls and learned a lot about living and survival. I learned to boil an egg in a kettle and would go out for the day with anyone who would buy me lunch. To make ends meet I had a job at the local restaurant as a washer upper.
“At drama school, you pick up any work to survive. In the early days, I worked in a nightclub as a dancer at London’s Panama Club. It was here I learned more about stage timings and entertaining a live audience than anyone can teach you at drama school.
“I absorbed everything and even went on tour with brothers Syd and Max Harrison with their pantomime stage act. An experience I shall never forget.”
Anna’s first professional acting job involved providing the voices of various puppets.
A friendship with Barbara Windsor, who suggested that Anna sat in Barbara’s lucky chair led to Anna starring in Wild, Wild Women between 1968 and 1969. That same year she played a schoolgirl in the classic bikini-flying scene in the film Carry on Camping.
Three weeks into the sitcom Wild, Wild Women Anna was struck with the flu. “I dragged myself into work with no makeup, looking terrible. I was spotted by ITV. They saw me and knew that I was just what they were looking for! They took me directly over to London Weekend television for the role as Olive for ‘On The Buses’.
“I loved playing the part, although sometimes it did get me down when the general public started treating me as stupid. One day a man approached me in the street and said to me ‘You’re the ugly one!’”
The show had enormous viewing figures and ran for five years, three films and stage plays that took Anna to Victoria, Toronto and Vancouver.
Anna was married to Terry Duggan who also appeared in, On The Buses, as Nobby The Depot Mechanic. Even their Great Dane worked on set.
In 1995, Anna Karen played a supporting role in the film Beautiful Thing, as a neighbour of the main characters, Ste and Jamie. A year later, she joined up with old pal Barbara Windsor, this time in the popular BBC soap operaEastenders, playing Sal Martin, the sister of Windsor’s Peggy Mitchell. Although Karen has never been a permanent cast member in the soap, she has continued to appear as ‘Aunt’ Sal Martin occasionally over the years, usually for only one or two episodes at a time.
Anna now teaches at Brewers academy in Hornchurch, Essex on a Saturday morning – “Something I did not think I would ever be able to do, but I love it.
“The entertainment business has changed over the years. It is so much harder to get into the trade. The answer is to be multi-talented if you can sing, dance and act you’re in with a much better chance of being successful.
“I have had a fabulous life and great career. On the Buses was a terrific stepping-stone. However, I firmly believe it is all about luck – being in the right place at the right time certainly has its advantages.
“My advice for anyone hoping to follow a career in the entertainment industry is to choose yourself a good agent and don’t give up.”
The Complete Omnibus DVD Set has now been released for all to enjoy and contains all seven series – plus the three feature film spin-offs On The Buses, Mutiny On The Buses and Holiday On The Buses.