Bob Monkhouse said he thought it might be 14 years since he last played Cheltenham Town Hall, but he couldn't be sure. "I do remember one thing, though," he added. "I died on my arse."
We were walking down a corridor beside the town hall's empty auditorium in the late afternoon. That evening Monkhouse, billed on the posters as "Comedy Legend", would perform his cabaret routine and would do whatever is the direct opposite of dying on your arse. He is in the process of trying out material for a solo stand-up show, Bob Monkhouse Now, coming to BBC1 in July. The BBC has already commissioned a second series for next summer, displaying, Monkhouse remarked without laughing, "an amazing degree of faith in my still being alive".
Watching him arrive at the back door of the town hall, you could see why the BBC might have the confidence to think long term. Monkhouse emerged crisply from the back of a large, silver Mercedes. His silk shirt, in muted plum, was by no means slashed to the navel but it was certainly open, confidently low, to reveal a smooth slab of chest, coloured, like the rest of his visible flesh, a deep bronze with just a hint of tangerine. This is not a tan available to the rest of us even if, like Monkhouse, we have access for three or four months of the year to our own beach-house in Barbados. For some reason which has never been adequately explained, only people in showbusiness go this colour.
Still, spritely as he may be, and effusive in his greetings and handshakings, Monkhouse is given periodically these days to some dark thoughts. He was 67 at the beginning of this month. Two years ago, emerging from the wine cellar at his house, he suffered a mild cerebral aneuryism, his speech and co-ordination briefly but alarmingly disappearing. Questions of what it has all amounted to - the years of gag-writing for the greats, the radio comedies, and latterly the game shows - and of what his legacy might be, clearly now weigh on him. "What will I leave behind me?" he wondered, unprompted, during our conversation, looking away to the corner of the room. "Two video cassettes of my cabaret act and a sea of game shows as valuable as yesterday's Daily Mirror." It is clear he regards this prospect with some horror: it would be dying on his arse, big time.
It's possible a little of this reflectiveness was inspired by a recent meeting. In Los Angeles, shooting the ITV Film Awards ceremony for which he was a co-host, Monkhouse got together with Bob Hope, whom he has met and worked with several times, but not in a while. "It was a heartbreak, because he's now 93 and he doesn't know who anybody is. The 6ft 2 is now 5ft 8, the eyes are totally blank. But when he gets near the stage ..." Monkhouse stood to demonstrate how Hope pulls it together as he reaches the edge of the lights, the back straightening, the face coming alive. "I swear to God he lives from day to day because he knows there's another function, another place to go where people will want to see him." After the show, Monkhouse's wife, Jackie, asked him if he wanted her to lead him around on the circuit, should he get to 93. Monkhouse thought about it and said, well, yes, if it was keeping him alive. "But don't let anyone see me in the wings," he told her.
By this point, we were sitting in Monkhouse's dressing room, a square and cheerless place, decorated only with a couple of chairs, a table and a silver platter of curly sandwiches under cellophane. "Do you mind if I have a drink?" he had asked me, and then retrieved a bottle of whisky from the bottom of a suit-bag. His driver and valet, a Scotsman to whom Monkhouse would refer variously during the course of our meeting as "Cheeky", "Noxious" and "Rob" was despatched for some water and ice.
It must be said, these occasional descents into bleakness are possibly the only things one has with which to separate the television Bob from the off-screen one. He comes on exactly as you have seen him on Bob Says Opportunity Knocks and Bob's Your Uncle and countless other Saturday night specials. He talks with a gulp and a roll of the hands in front of his chest. Some of his sentences fade moodily away or wind eerily upwards at the end. Sometimes the voice drops to a whisper of wonderment. And every now and then he issues the staccato laugh. This seamless continuity gets him a bad press in some quarters, though it could just as easily be read as a mark of his professionalism. Bob Monkhouse is always, unfailingly, Bob Monkhouse and you know where you stand.
Nevertheless, his critics have called him the insincerity king - meaning this pejoratively, though it could just be exactly what's required in the game Monkhouse plays. In any case, he is ahead of the critics in this, as he showed at the televised Variety Club dinner held in his honour some years back. After the usual fulsome testimonies and character references from celebrity guests and friends, Monkhouse rose and gave his speech of thanks. His topic was sincerity: about its importance in life generally and about its importance in Monkhouse's career. As the speech wound on, gag-free, you could sense an embarrassed discomfiture starting to gather in the air. Bob Monkhouse? Talking about sincerity? But the punchline was still coming. "Yes, sincerity," Monkhouse said in conclusion. "If you can fake that, you can fake anything."
Recently the critics have been heard less. Monkhouse has been through what he refers to as "a rediscovery", though it is equally a rehabilitation. He dates this from an appearance on Radio 4's In the Psychiatrist's Chair, a one-on-one interview with Dr Anthony Clare in which he gave a startlingly bleak performance, attesting to some dark demons within. "After that," he says, "people started to ask me if I wanted to do things of greater weight. There was so much surprise that there was anything behind the mask. People seemed to detect something that was different from the grinning jackanapes."
His autobiography, Crying With Laughter, further confirmed these suspicions. Far from the usual boastful, skimpy romp, it dealt in detail and openly, not just with his brief fling with Diana Dors and an extraordinary orgy he attended in the Fifties, but also with difficult things in his life: in particular the end of his first marriage and the death at 40 of his son Gary, who was born with cerebral palsy. (Monkhouse also has a daughter, Abigail, by that first marriage. He remarried in 1973.) The book jogged his career into new channnels. He nappeared on Room 101, Have I Got News For You, The Big Breakfast, places where a younger audience saw him and didn't turn their noses up.
It helped that he had escaped the worst heat generated by the alternative comedy generation. He was largely spared their attacks, not being one of the golfing set - a Tarbuck or a Forsyth - and not being overtly off- key, like a Benny Hill or a Bernard Manning. He says the only comedians he has any personal difficulties with nowadays are "the Essex lot: one or two lary lads who come from the scrap-metal belt. The ones who think they they're the sharpies from clubland. I yield to no one in my admiration of Jim Davidson's technique and Mike Reid's delivery. But those gentlemen aside there are quite a number of people who are difficult to get on with because they haven't cracked it. How am I, who have been around for so long, going to behave? Am I going to be nice? Then I'm being patronising. Am I going to be nasty? Then I'm a snoot. How do I choose my approach?"
In the place where golf might be, Monkhouse has films. A room at his home in Hertfordshire houses his projection booth and his 8ft-wide screen that descends from the ceiling. When the police seized his collection of 16mm films in 1978, many assumed he was hoarding porn. In fact he had been wrongly accused of copyright breaches and the case was dismissed.
He does, though, own one blue movie. He told me this quite candidly. "Got it when I was 18 or 19. It's a little one-reeler, French, and made, I should think, sometime in the Twenties. Two quite attractive women in Marie Antoinette-type outfits are coming through a field. The hero pulls down his trousers and lies down. And one of the women goes, `Ooh, un champignon nouveau - a new mushroom', and she goes to pluck the mushroom and continues plucking it for about five minutes." Monkhouse let out one of his staccato laughs. "I love that one."
Bookings crowd in for his corporate cabaret routine, his after-dinner speech-making, his awards presentation service. "You know the kind of thing - Stockbroker of the Year, Double Glazing Salesman of the Year ..." It's easy to picture him in these roles - smart, quick, unfazed to an almost spooky degree. "It's like the old gag about buying the seasick pills and the condoms and the chemist saying, `If it makes you sick, why do you do it?' I wanted to say to Tony Hancock, `If it makes you vomit before every single show, do something else.' Dick Emery was the same. And he would say, `You're not a performer if you don't feel nervous.' But I have never suffered. Except on royal shows. It's not an audience in the ordinary sense of the word. You will do a joke which has never let you down, it will roll off into space and you can't hear a sound coming back. You'll then do a link line and it'll get a laugh. I hate them. And also, checking that bloody box, sweating on whether Prince Phillip's cracked a smile is not my way of building a career. I've done my time on royals. I'm buggered if I'm going to put my arse on the line."
Monkhouse recently gave an after-dinner speech for the Investment Property Forum at the Royal Lancaster Hotel. "And I just had to get to the point where I say, `Then there was The Golden Shot ...' And the room exploded. "It was like Harry Lauder must have felt when he sang his big number. That's the only thing I've got that's like that."
It won't be coming back, even in this age of the revival. "It had a cosy, Sunday afternoon, cottage industry feel to it. You couldn't duplicate it now." Plus he had a bad experience, cribbing the "Bernie the Bolt" catchphrase for Bob's Your Uncle, where it re-emerged as "Donna the Dart".
"A doomed show," he said. "Desperate ideas. When you shove people into foam, you really are in trouble. The day you see me put a pounds 10 note at the bottom of a blancmange and say, `You've got to get that out without using your hands,' you'll know I've finally come to the end of the line."
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