We are now a considerable way through our Legends’ Season here at Beyond The Title and now another founding father of British Light Entertainment goes under the spotlight and with so many icons to choose from, it was incredibly difficult to decide upon my subject. Yet the 29th of this very month marks the fourteenth anniversary of the death of the legendary Bob Monkhouse, I thought it would be a missed opportunity not to explore the life and work of this comedy institution. A star for over half a century, Bob Monkhouse became part of the showbiz establishment and one of the founding fathers of television Light Entertainment. Yet there was so much more to him than the smooth one liners and cheesy smile.
Born on 1 June 1928 to parents Wilfred Adrian Monkhouse and Dorothy Muriel Monk, Bob enjoyed a modest, middle class upbringing with his older brother John. His paternal grandfather John Monkhouse senior was a Methodist businessman who co-founded the food manufacturer Monk and Glass which made jelly and custard powder. Yet this didn’t hold any appeal for the young Bob as he would often recount in later years. Instead he had his sights firmly set on another field entirely. More suited to a pen and paper than the methods of pasteurisation, Bob was a keen sketcher and would take every opportunity to doodle drawings on anything he could lay his hands on. Yet it didn’t take long for these “doodles” to take on a definite comedic theme inspired by The Beano and The Dandy.
It wasn’t long before these simple drawings took on an extra comedic approach and suddenly Bob was writing fully functioning jokes with a setup and punchline. If he could do this in comic strip form, maybe the material would work on its own? Aged seventeen, Monkhouse joined Gaumont British Films as an animator under the supervision of the cartoonist David Low. It was here that Bob first met his hero Max Miller and fell in love with the way he addressed his audience. Miller broke down the obvious social barriers by simply speaking their language and making his material relevant for the time. As soon as he entered the stage heralding his infamous catchphrase “Listen, Listen”, the crowd were in the palm of his hand. Bob saw the
affection which the audience held for his comedy hero and wanted so desperately to emulate it. He approached Miller and showed him the joke book which had stemmed from his passion for cartoons. The comic was so impressed by the standard of Bob’s material that he offered to buy a few off him. Thus began a long pursuit of tempting other comics to purchase gags from the Monkhouse repertoire, something which would grow increasingly more frequent as the years went by.
In 1946 Bob was called up for National service as a serviceman in the Forces’ Central Medical Establishment. In every division there was an entertainment corpse and each Thursday afternoon the RAF would invite agents and theatrical folk to come and watch the performances. One particular afternoon in 1949, demobbed soldier turned agent Dabber Davis came to the show and saw something in Bob which he liked. Davis handed Bob a business card and instructed him to get in touch when he had served his time. Sure enough, when Bob left the RAF, he stuck to his word and thus began a working agreement which would last the best part of two decades.
In 1948 Bob had a unique encounter in a department store when he was served by a sales assistant called Denis Goodwin. Instantly they both realised that they had a rapport and both wanted to enter into the world of comedy. Now together with Dabber Davis, the pair began penning material under the registered trademark of Monkhouse and Goodwin Limited. It wasn’t long before the pair attracted International acclaim for their craft and comedy superstars including Bob Hope were lining up to attain some of the best lines in the business.
This was the era of nightclub review and theatres including The Windmill played host to adult shows where nudity was high on the performance agenda. Comics were hired as a light interlude to the frank titillation of the young girls who it’s said would frequently parade around the stage naked. It was a tough grounding for any aspiring comedian and for Bob this was a rude awakening to a life under the spotlight. Yet this was a great opening for any young aspiring performer who had their sights firmly set on a career in Variety and the roll call of comics who made their name at the infamous Windmill reads like a Who’s Who of British Comedy: Benny Hill, Bruce Forsyth, Frankie Howerd, Barry Cryer, Tommy Cooper and many more. It was clear that Monkhouse was definitely in good company.
This coincided with the age of the television revolution and the small screen had yet to gain momentum in the UK. In 1958 ATV broadcasted a Variety show entitled The Bob Monkhouse Hour which originally was going to be centred on the comic talents of both Monkhouse and Goldwin but when they both went under the spotlight, it was always Bob who shone brighter. This deeply affected Goodwin and promptly put him on the road to depression. Yet this didn’t stop Bob from performing and in 1958 he landed the leading role in Peter Roger’s first film in the infamous comedy franchise Carry On Sergeant. This was Bob’s first leading role and having such a great supporting cast he was in his element. With stars who would become the backbone of the Carry On…franchise including; Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jaques and Charles Hawtrey, the film was considered a success. Yet just as Carry On had begun to gather momentum, Bob was offered another venture. The 1960 movie; Dentist In The Chair starred Bob alongside Kenneth Connor as dentist David Cookson tasked with finding a suitable dentist to endorse their own brand of toothpaste. Unfortunately the film didn’t seem to hit a chord with the public and Bob was facing failure for the first time.
Adamant not to allow the Doctor films to hamper his career, Monkhouse was quick to make a return to television in the prank ATV series Candid Camera. Years before Jeremy Beadle, this was the first programme to pull stunts on the general public. This show set the benchmark for the rise of audience participation and made Bob part of the television establishment. But this didn’t halt his passions for theatre and live performance and in 1963 he returned to the West End alongside Ronnie Corbett for The Boys From Syracuse. Just four years later he returned to ATV with the show which helped to define the rest of his career. By this time, approaching twenty years in the business, Bob realised that he needed some consolidation. Dabber Davis had been a great agent and friend from the start, but now the all round entertainer required a certain person to help him make waves within the growing television scene. Peter Prichard had been a stalwart of the Grade organisation since the early fifties and had been responsible for Mario Lanza’s appearance on the 1957 Royal Variety Performance. Peter and Bob began a working relationship in 1967 which was to last for the next thirty five years making it one of the most successful partnerships in showbiz history.
The Golden Shot was a US imported game show which had already ran for one series on ATV in the hands of Canadian singer Jackie Rae but had lacked the pull to draw large audiences in. In a bid to save the format, Bob Monkhouse was drafted in to take the show to a whole new audience. For five years Bob Monkhouse and “Bernie The Bolt” became synonymous with Sunday teatime as viewers would ring in and direct Bernie to various targets. Ably assisted by co-host Ann Aston, Bob steered the successful show until 1972 when he was brutally replaced by Norman Vaughan live on the show. This was a great blow for Monkhouse as his career hung in the balance. Just two years and two failed presenters later in the form of Norman Vaughan and Charlie Williams, sanity prevailed and Bob was reinstated. The king of the game show was back where he belonged for one final series.
This cemented Bob’s popularity with the television audience and it wasn’t long before executives were on the lookout for his next vehicle. Ironically it was Peter Prichard who found this in the form of another US series entitled Family Feud in which two families go head to head in rounds concerned with the recorded data from one hundred people. Family Fortunes became an overnight hit for Bob and ATV making him once again one of the biggest stars in Britain. In 1975 Bob followed up his game show success with the noughts and crosses themed game Celebrity Squares in which nine stars assist two contestants to win star prizes through a series of true or false questions.
Fast becoming the recognised king of the British game show, Bob remained mindful that despite the formats being easy to run, his true calling still lie in the art of Variety and stand up comedy. Like many of his peers from the glory days of Variety, Bob understood that television couldn’t sustain the extravagant budgets required to replicate the theatrical shows of his early career. Therefore game shows became his way of remaining relevant for new audiences. But these shows were always a means to an end in allowing him to continue to play Comedy clubs and theatres throughout Britain. In this respect, the Bob Monkhouse who we saw on Celebrity Squares was not the same Bob Monkhouse who would frequently appear in late night cabaret. His stage material could be extremely adult and often balanced vicariously on the fine line between decency and suggestive humour. A great lover of language, he loved to play around with words and meaning to create plausible situations with the most unlikely outcomes.
“I can still enjoy sex at 74, I live at 76 so it’s no distance.”
Bob Monkhouse 2002.
As the eighties dawned, Britain was changing. A new wave of comedian burst onto the entertainment scene threatening the status of many of Bob’s peers. For many Variety entertainers this was the end of the road but Bob’s versatility as a performer made him relevant for any generation. Being so synonymous with the art of the game show, Monkhouse was obvious prey for these anarchists to make an example of in mocking the showbiz establishment. Yet what the Alternative Comedy generation failed to note was that Bob himself realised that the game show genre may not have been the best television entertainment and probably was a cheap way of making a living. As soon as they were reminded of his comedic pedigree, Bob Monkhouse became an adopted father of Alternative Comedy and was one of the few entertainers from his generation to be accepted into this comedy group.
Straddling both sides of the comedy world, Bob was now able to accept a whole host of different projects. In 1987 he returned to the BBC to replace Hughie Green for Bob Says Opportunity Knocks. This proved a popular routine in his stand up act as he would often recount how an old man would always come to the auditions and insist on being heard, to which Bob would say “go home Des!” (a reference to his friend Des O’Connor). Bob Says Opportunity Knocks lasted for two series until his friend Les Dawson took the helm for the final run of this celebrated series leaving Bob to ponder other ventures.
Coming into the nineties, Bob suddenly reached legendary status as the upcoming pool of comics regarded him as a comedy icon. The BBC found him yet another game show format in The 64,000,000 Question but it would seem even into his fourth decade in entertainment, Bob was still being taunted by the game show format.
This encouraged him to think about writing his memoirs and in 1993 he released his long awaited autobiography Crying With Laughter in which he told his tale from a lifetime in entertainment. In the same year he made a surprise appearance as a guest presenter on Channel Four’s Big Breakfast which brought him to a whole new audience.
Bob was once again riding high in the television ratings which prompted LWT to commission An Audience With Bob Monkhouse in 1994 which saw celebrity friends and fans come together to witness the comedy legend at his very best. Being able to shed his familiar game show image and remind the audience of his talents as an all round entertainer was something which filled Bob with immense pride. Television executives suddenly saw him in a whole new light and in 1995 BBC television commissioned two series of the improvisational Bob Monkhouse On The Spot. Back where he belonged in front of a live a who offered up subjects for him to make off the cuff remarks around, Bob was in his element.
Yet tragedy was about to strike in the middle of a recording of On The Spot at BBC Television Centre when his infamous joke book was stolen from his dressing room. This led to a nationwide police investigation which resulted in Peter Prichard arranging a meeting with the captors at an undisclosed location where he was able to reunite Bob with his beloved book.
Presenting duties on The National Lottery Live and the Queen Mother’s 100th birthday followed ensuing his status as a national treasure. A BBC1 chat show Funny For Money played to Bob’s passion for up and coming talent. This prompted an unexpected offer from comic and star of BBC1’s Jonathan Creek: Alan Davies who wanted Bob to guest star in an episode of the crime series. Bob was cast as Sylvester Le Fley, a millionaire who is the victim of a painting theft in their stately mansion resulting in fatal consequences. Sadly this was one of Bob’s last acting roles but the opportunity to act alongside one of his comedy protégés was a fantastic thrill.
As the new millennium dawned, Bob showed no signs of slowing down. Of course another game show came knocking when he replaced Paul Daniels for the lunchtime quiz Wipeout. This was to be his last game show as in 2001 Bob was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
A stalwart of entertainment, Bob continued to work and initiated a BBC documentary entitled Bob Monkhouse: Behind The Laughter where he told the true story behind many of our best loved comics. This was the unabridged story of Light entertainment as we had never heard it before and it could have only ever been told by this icon of Comedy. Now into his sixth decade in entertainment, it seemed that Bob had done it all.
On the 27th of December 2003 Bob Monkhouse passed away at his home surrounded by friends and family. The following days and weeks saw tributes pour in from a whole range of figures from the world of entertainment as they mourned one of the founding fathers of British Comedy. It was almost impossible to imagine the television landscape without him. Yet as the above proves, Bob’s career was so embedded into the fabric of Britain that his contribution to Light entertainment will be felt for generations. From the late forties to the early noughties, Bob Monkhouse forever remained on the forefront of British entertainment and constantly pushed boundaries to delight audiences. When searching for legends of the genre, I defy anyone to look further than the life and career of the legendary Bob Monkhouse.