Bob Monkhouse

Icon of British entertainment television and an elder statesman of comedy
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The Independent Online

Robert Alan Monkhouse, comedian, actor and television presenter: born Beckenham, Kent 1 June 1928; OBE 1993; twice married (one adopted daughter, and two sons deceased); died Eggington, Bedfordshire 29 December 2003.

The first time that Bob Monkhouse appeared on television, at the age of 19, he said, "No one watched it, not even the cameramen." But a career over five decades as a comedian, actor and presenter of game shows including Celebrity Squares, Family Fortunes and The Golden Shot ensured him a niche as one of the all-purpose icons of British entertainment television, respected as an elder statesman of comedy even by a new generation of university-educated "alternative" comedians.

He could inspire extreme reactions in critics and audiences, and said himself that, "I've always known that I polarise opinion. Some people respond with enthusiasm and affection. In others, I awaken a lot of hostility." He had been described variously in reviews, he said, as "smarmy, plastic, oily, greasy, unctuous, shallow, superficial, old-fashioned, superannuated, crap", but, in later years, "I suddenly realised I could maybe occupy a different position because of age, a kind of acceptance."

Monkhouse had that almost essential prerequisite for the career of comedian, the emotionally neglected childhood. He was born Robert Alan Monkhouse in Beckenham, Kent, in 1928, the son of Wilfred Monkhouse, chief accountant at Phoenix Assurance and chairman of the family custard firm, Monk and Glass, and his wife Dorothy.

His mother Bob Monkhouse remembered hugging him only once, during an air-raid in 1944. His father, after once seeing the chubby and unsporty young Robert naked after a bath, hit him with such force that he needed stitches. Wilfred told his wife that the boy had hurt himself on his bike and Robert, rather than resent this lie, cherished it as "sharing a male secret" with his father.

Wilfred Monkhouse once took a thrilled and surprised Robert for an unprecedented day out. Father and son went shopping, for a fish-and-chip lunch and then to the cinema. When he got back, Robert heard his mother ask his father if he would take him out again one day. Wilfred replied that he had done as she had asked him, and would do no more. No wonder that, when young Bob's kind and affectionate grandfather John Monkhouse died, the boy was so distressed that he could not speak for three months and developed a stammer.

Bob Monkhouse's interest in becoming a comedian was nevertheless developing at the same time as he was suffering such misery and neglect. He dated this desire to the day that the maid took him to see George Formby in Boots! Boots! at the cinema on Easter Monday in 1934, when he was six. Monkhouse set about his goal with determination. When he was 12, an unhappy, average, if striving, pupil at Dulwich College, he sent some sample jokes to Leonard Henry, a 1930s comedian. "My father was ruined by hard drink - he sat on an icicle," was one such gag. In total, he wrote to Henry with such offerings nine times, finally receiving the reply: "Young Man, Please do not send me any more of your nonsense . . ." Undeterred, he sent his cartoons, which he was encouraged to do by a sympathetic master at school, to the great political cartoonist David Low, who opined, "No real promise here."

Even without the benefit of critical backing, Monkhouse penned Christmas-card verses, getting a shilling for each four dozen, and drew cartoons and wrote short stories for comics such as The Beano and The Dandy. This led to writing pulp books for the troops during the Second World War - he produced a total of 30 over a period of 18 months. He also won second prize in a young talent contest on Worthing Pier by telling his best joke and, on his 16th birthday, sold some gags to Max Miller for five shillings.

At Dulwich College, Monkhouse passed his Higher School Certificate with five honours and went on to do National Service. He was posted in 1947 to the Forces' Central Medical Establishment and connived an interview with BBC radio by forging a letter from his boss, an RAF psychiatrist, to say that, psychologically, Monkhouse had urgent need of an audition with the BBC before his therapy would kick in.

Astonishingly, the ruse was successful and Monkhouse was soon one of the BBC's resident comedians, famously partnered with Denis Goodwin, another Dulwich College old boy. Starting in their early twenties, the pair presented a weekly show, Calling All Forces, for seven years. Monkhouse formed a writing partnership with Goodwin, scripting and performing radio comedy and also writing material for stars from Bob Hope to Frank Sinatra, which ended only with Goodwin's suicide in 1975.

As well as concentrating on his career, the ever more confident and smart young Monkhouse also invested energy into earning his later reputation as the Casanova of the comedy circuit. His first sexual exploit had been at the age of 15 with someone whom he described simply as "a mature lady, related to me". A week later, he was groped in the cinema by an old man and, not wishing to offend him, said, "I'm afraid that's not convenient at present."

In 1949 Monkhouse married a Belfast girl, Elizabeth, when he was just 20 and already a glamorous early television performer as well as a radio star. The marriage was the catalyst for a showdown with his parents. Dorothy didn't approve of Elizabeth and told her that, if she married Bob, the Monkhouse family would cut him off without a penny. When Elizabeth and Bob married, Dorothy wore black.

After the marriage, Bob helped Elizabeth write a letter which outlined all her grievances and hurt about how she had been treated. By return of post came an envelope containing, ripped into pieces, a picture Bob had drawn when he was six. A 17-year-long silence ensued between mother and son, broken only briefly in 1951 by Dorothy's visit on the birth of Bob's first son, Gary, who was born three months prematurely and suffered from cerebral palsy.

In 1967, Bob wrote to his mother expressing regret at their estrangement. He went to see her three times. Unbeknown to him, Dorothy was having radiation treatment for cancer, and the following year she fell into a coma which lasted until 1969, when she died.

There was also no contact between Monkhouse and his brother John between their father's death, in 1957, and 1977, when John took his family to a taping of Celebrity Squares. The two negotiated what Bob called "brotherly contact of a kind". Very much against his wishes, Monkhouse later became estranged, too, from his younger son Simon, who blamed his father for his own unhappy life. In 2001 Simon died from a heroin overdose.

His marriage did not stop Monkhouse from "dallying with every pretty actress and singer in our shows", including Diana Dors, whose violent husband Denis Hamilton threatened in 1956 to slit Monkhouse's eyeballs when he found out about it. Monkhouse was no sexual exhibitionist, however. In 1952, long before the fallout with Hamilton, Dors and her husband had invited him to a blue-movie party, at which he was invited to go to bed with a comely young dancer. When Monkhouse realised that there was a false mirror in the bedroom and that the other party guests were assembled behind it, he was furious and walked out on the proceedings.

Monkhouse in later years would ascribe his promiscuity to his less-than-fulfilled marriage; if he could not satisfy his wife, he explained, he was determined to satisfy someone. Bob and Elizabeth would go on to have two more children, Simon and an adopted daughter, Abigail. Bob Monkhouse admitted that his infidelities made him feel "no more guilt than a cockerel". The marriage ended in 1966 and, in 1973, Monkhouse married Jackie, who had been his secretary for 10 years and to whom he would remain faithful. He spent his second wedding night doing midnight cabaret at an Oxfordshire venue called the Chicken in the Basket.

Cabaret and stand-up comedy were what Monkhouse enjoyed best. He once said, "I was a born club comic. Radio and TV and stage were fine, but I found my real home in cabaret." In the 1950s he was involved with the successful launch of the television company ATV in Birmingham and the company started to book him for all its light entertainment shows. Over the decades, he specialised in hosting game shows such as Celebrity Squares, Family Fortunes, The $64,000 Question and Bob's Your Uncle.

In 1967, he began to present The Golden Shot, which drew in up to 16 million viewers. He was dropped by the show in 1972 for accepting a bribe; it consisted of a pornographic book and some Wilkinson Sword razors. This embarrassment did not prevent him from continuing his work off-screen. Amongst other work, he spent a decade of summers driving round Butlins holiday camps to fill late-night cabaret slots.

In 1993 Monkhouse was interviewed by Dr Antony Clare for the Radio 4 programme In the Psychiatrist's Chair and, on the back of that, was asked to write what turned out to be a remarkably frank autobiography, Crying with Laughter (1993), which became a best-seller and gave a new lease of life to a flagging career. He likened writing his autobiography to marrying a nymphomaniac - wonderful for the first couple of months and then just plain exhausting. Nevertheless, he followed the book up with a second volume, Over the Limit (1999).

In his seventies, Monkhouse still presented the National Lottery programme, hosted Wipeout, a daytime quiz show, the ITV Movie Awards of 1995 - and won a Lifetime Achievement Award in comedy from ITV. He also made the leap to modern comedy, appearing on Have I Got News For You, Room 101 and taking on TV roles such as presenting The Big Breakfast and playing a villain in an episode of Jonathan Creek.

In 1995, Monkhouse offered a £10,000 reward for the return of two large notebooks he believed had been stolen from a locker in BBC TV Centre and which contained 25 years' worth of his jokes, sketches and cartoons, all meticulously written and colour-coded in his cramped handwriting. When the books were returned over a year later, he said he felt as ecstatic as he had on his second wedding day.

Aside from comedy, Monkhouse was also a film buff (he appeared in a dozen films himself) and had a private collection of movies, which on one occasion led him into trouble. In 1978, he was arrested for conspiracy to defraud film companies by illegally importing films for his collection. The police seized his 1,800 films, but Monkhouse was later acquitted of all charges at the Old Bailey. He nevertheless lost the greater part of his collection because he would have had to go to court in order to establish his right to each film individually.

He lived in Bedfordshire and Barbados, although the latter home was not the whole reason for what seemed to be his permanent suntan, so deep that the actress Beryl Reid once told him it would look overdone on lederhosen. He used a sunbed to cover up vitiligo, a condition in which pale patches appear on the skin. Monkhouse also developed severe migraines after the birth of his disabled son Gary which lasted until Gary's premature death in 1992. Gary was brought up at home, but when his condition worsened, he went at his own request to live at a centre for the disabled. Monkhouse described Gary as "the most important thing in my life for 40 years".

Bob Monkhouse's views on his own death were endearingly open. In his autobiography he wrote,

Although I have always loved the noise of laughter, I really can't fear the coming of quiet. As for funerals, I rather like them. Such nice things are always said about the deceased, I feel sad that they had to miss hearing it all by just a few days.

Jonathan Margolis

Bob Monkhouse used to phone me whenever he heard a singer mangling the lyrics of a great song, writes Dick Vosburgh.

A lifelong fan of Cole Porter, he appeared at the Coliseum Theatre in 1959, playing the title role in Aladdin. The pantomime had a Porter score, including some songs written the previous year for an American television special. Bob had the best of those numbers, "Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking". "Of course, it wasn't sung by Aladdin in the TV show," he told me, "but I said I'd only do the panto if they'd let me have it." Porter's very last "list" song, it went in part: "If you want to buy a kite / Or a pup to keep you up at night / Or a dwarf that used to know Snow White / Or a frog that loves to sing, / Come to the supermarket in old Peking."

Like that frog, Bob loved singing. His recording of Rodgers and Hart's ballad "You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea" is still regularly played on Radio 2. In 1963 he and Paula Hendrix sang that song, as well as "This Can't Be Love", in a short-lived Drury Lane revival of The Boys from Syracuse, Rodgers and Hart's musical version of The Comedy of Errors. Although he and the equally missed Denis Quilley were far from identical, they were both splendid as Shakespeare's Antipholus twins.

The last time Bob rang me was only a few months ago. He'd just heard a new recording by Ute Lemper of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson's "September Song", on which she sang "Oh, it's a long, long time / From May to December, But the days grow short / Till you reach September." Bob barked over the phone, "She's killed the whole point of the song! Anderson wrote 'When you reach September', not 'Till' - and I ought to know. My days are getting shorter all the time!"