In recent years British broadcasting has seen something of a resurgence of the old guard. The television careers of Bruce Forsyth, Terry Wogan and Noel Edmonds to name but three have been reinvigorated and they are now regularly seen on our screens once more. There is another name that could easily have been added to this list had it not been for his very sad passing in 2003, that name is Bob Monkhouse.
I actually see Bob in a bracket all of his own. As a performer, his skills in ad-libbing and improvisation were more than a match not just for his contemporaries but also those who would follow him the worlds of comedy and entertainment. Aside from writing and performing he remained a fervent fan and devotee of film and comedy throughout his life. He owned a vast personal collection of rare films and a legendary compendium of joke books which were famously stolen in 1995 and then returned eighteen months later on the back of a ten thousand pound reward.
I had the great pleasure of working with Bob in his latter years but I’ll come to that shortly. My first memory of seeing him was when he hosted Family Fortunes. Of course, he hosted many quiz shows throughout his career including The Golden Shot, Celebrity Squares and Wipeout and to some that’s all he was, a quiz show host. This is somewhat inaccurate as he did much more in a career that proved as varied as it was successful.
In his early days Bob was predominantly a writer with early examples of his work found in The Beano and The Dandy comics. He then teamed up with his one time writing partner Dennis Goodwin to provide jokes for the comedians and stars of the day ranging from Arthur Askey and Max Miller to Bob Hope and even Frank Sinatra. Albeit keeping him in money these writing gigs didn’t give Bob the fame he achieved as a presenter of numerous quiz shows, as host of Sunday Night At The London Palladium and as an actor in British films such as Carry On Sergeant in 1958 and Dentist In The Chair in 1960. He would continue to perform standup throughout this period and is viewed by many of todays comedians as something of a godfather figure. There is a great early clip of him on You Tube to be found here and it’s a quite exquisite insight into the mans comic capabilities.
So to my personal experience of working with Bob. In my second ever tv job I bagged the role as roving reporter on a BBC programme called The Bob Monkhouse DIY Film Show. As the title suggests the show looked at all aspects of do it yourself filmmaking as well as interviewing directors, actors and producers. This really was a dream job for me as firstly I have always been a massive film fan, secondly I got my first job in television on the back of a short film I had made and thirdly, I had the chance meet Bob Monkhouse!
The bulk of my filming was done independently with a separate crew as I was at a film premiere one minute and then at a film festival the next whereas Bob was at different locations filming his links. Luckily there was to be one day when we were both filming at the same location and to say I was excited about this would be an understatement. Due to the intensity of the days shoot I didn’t get a chance to speak to him until lunchtime when thanks to a producer who knew I was a fan, I was placed next to him at the dinner table. Nervously, I quickly introduced myself but Bob immediately put me at ease and said the pleasure was all his which was a very kind gesture on his part. For the following half an hour we chatted, or more precisely, Bob chatted and I intently listened. What struck me most was his vast knowledge of film. I could have listened to his anecdotes for weeks although trying to recall all the details now is slightly difficult as I think I must have been in a bit of a daze at the time. I do remember spending a good while discussing Jack Nicholson and in particular the film As Good As It Gets which along with wife Jackie who was also present, Bob was a big fan of.
At the end of lunch Bob decided to go to his trailer and I saw this as a chance to fulfill a promise to my Dad. When I received the news that I would be working with Bob my Dad had mentioned that he had a Bob Monkhouse book and if I ever got the chance for Bob to sign it he would be most grateful. As Bob made his way to the trailer I saw it as my window of opportunity. Luckily I had the book on my person along with a good quality pen. As Bob had left the table shortly before me I had to be quick but succeeded in catching up with him and with a quick precursory clearing of the throat asked if he would do the necessary. I was worried that I might not be the first to have put in such a request that day but if I was just the latest in a long line of fans craving a signature Bob certainly never let on. He was pleased to sign a copy of Over The Limit: My Secret Diaries 1993-8 but it wasn’t until reading the message he had left some moments later that the true character of the man became even more apparent. The message he wrote read “For Ian – my life is in your hands. Hope this book makes you smile – (from the author, a friend of Douglas) Bob Monkhouse. 30:5:00.” I was genuinely touched by what I read and didn’t care if he had written similar messages many times before for other fans of his work. There it was in black and white.
It was with obvious sadness that I heard the news of Bob’s death in December 2003 although it wasn’t a great surprise as he had been battling cancer for some time. It was testament to the man that he kept performing as much as his body would let him while all the time his mind and wit remained as sharp as ever. In the subsequent years since his passing I’m glad he is increasingly viewed as a great comedian and writer and not just a quiz show host, not that there should be any stigma attached to presenting such formats if you do it as well as he did. He made it look alarmingly easy and that just serves to accentuate the supreme quality of his performing skills. There are many words which would contribute to an adequate description of Bob – comedian, writer, host, entertainer and actor would all suffice. I would of course also add just one more – friend.
Image – John Gushue