Now let’s hear it for Ashby de la Zouch and Bob Monkhouse! 

1 June 2024 tbs.pm/81426

This article uses a term that is no longer considered acceptable – Ed

 

Bob Monkhouse, prince of the television game shows, is never lost for words. Not even when we ask him a very personal $64,000 question…

 

Bob Monkhouse reads a crumpled newspaper

Bob Monkhouse admits he would be surprised if he ever read a good review these days for his work in showbusiness. [picture: JON HOFFMAN]

 

Cover of TVTimes

From the TVTimes for 2 June 1990

WHY DOES Ashby de la Zouch sound funnier than Stratford-upon-Avon? Why is chicken funnier than hen?

Bob Monkhouse says he doesn’t know, but over the years he has discovered that audiences find certain things particularly funny.

‘Why do we always make jokes about Scunthorpe?’ he asks. ‘Why do we laugh at Milton Keynes? It’s a beautiful place but we tell them it isn’t so they laugh.’

Bob spends hours each day reading the newspapers to get ideas for topical gags. He reads The Times, The Sun and Daily Mail and on Sundays he ploughs through at least five papers.

‘But topical humour has a very limited shelf-life,’ he says. ‘Edwina Currie was our most precious commodity for a year but all those egg jokes would seem absolutely miserable now.’

Bob chooses his targets carefully but, almost ruefully, he admits he’s not much of a target himself. He says that the last time anyone wrote about him with genuine enthusiasm was in 1954.

‘That was my first TV series — Fast and Loose — and I got rave reviews. I haven’t had another good review since and I doubt I ever will.’

He has long since accepted that he’s not everyone’s cup of tea.

‘I can’t do anything about my image any more than Mrs Thatcher can about hers. When I go on the screen people will either say, “I never miss him; I like him a lot”, or “I can’t stand that greasy creep; he makes me sick”.

‘Recently, one critic said that if they ever ran out of North Sea oil they could plug into me. I used to think that as I got older that would stop and people would say “poor old devil”, but it hasn’t.’

So the big question is this: since showbusiness is supposed to be a young person’s game, why is this mature performer still searching the papers for gags, still doing his stuff?

‘On the very day the first show of my new series went out I was 62. And here I am, an old gent although, hopefully, there’s still a long way to go. I guess I’m still doing it because I wanted to do this when I was a kid and I’ve never changed my mind. I couldn’t stop now if I wanted to,’ he says.

There is, of course, another question and it is the one Bob Monkhouse regards as his own $64,000 question: ‘If I had my life over again, what would I change?

‘Obviously one would try to mend failed relationships — or avoid them. Elizabeth and I were married in 1949, we parted in 1967 and divorced in 1970. A failed marriage is something both partners are bound to regret for the rest of their lives, having invested the time and love in the first place. I have a very happy second marriage, to Jacqueline, and Elizabeth is happily remarried. But one would perhaps rewrite it.’

Another episode he would like to rewrite happened when he decided on a career in showbusiness, although his parents wanted him to join the family business, making custard powder.

‘If I had a time machine I’d like to go back to when I was 14 or 15, which is when it started to go wrong. I didn’t understand my mother and I began to resent her. I didn’t understand her dominating single-mindedness. Her control over me was, in fact, benevolent. I couldn’t read it that way so I rebelled and I would like to have not done that. I would like to have tolerated that more than I did. I wish I’d managed to be sensible enough to have prevented that awful rift with my family.’

Monk & Glass logo

The member of the family that perhaps had the deepest effect on the young Bob Monkhouse was his grandfather, Freddy, who founded the company that produce Monk and Glass custard powder.

‘I adored him beyond any man I have ever met. He died when I was little and, as a result, I couldn’t speak for about six weeks and had a stutter for two years,’ says Bob.

Given the chance, he says he would make other ‘minor’ adjustments to his past.

‘I would not have started out as a scriptwriter. I would have tried to get a more profound grounding in drama. I can act, but it’s specious acting compared to what I would like to have done had I the training and the background.

‘And I would like to have got more into music; had singing lessons and developed my voice so I could work more in musicals — and even make records.

‘But these are small details. What I’ve done I’ve pretty well enjoyed and I’ve been immensely lucky. I don’t really think I would want to go back and live my life over again because I might not have the sheer good luck that has blessed me at every turning.

‘And certainly, if I were starting out all over again today, I would have a much tougher time. I look at young people today and think: “Oh no, I don’t envy you at all”. The world is not a very easy place to handle at the moment and it doesn’t promise to get any easier. People of my age weren’t really involved in World War Two, apart from watching it as teenagers. We have breathed pure air and eaten decent food and had the opportunity to make a good living in a thriving country where you felt safe. How could you ask for more than that? Now we have riots and even earthquakes. I don’t know that I really like the world today.’

The world Bob Monkhouse has created for himself is a good one. Home is a beautiful old manor house in Bedfordshire and he is having a beach house built in Barbados which should be ready by Christmas.

 

 

‘It’s simply because I can’t stand the hotels in Barbados. And as we spend about five weeks a year there it made sense to have our own house,’ he explains.

But far above fame and fortune, Bob Monkhouse says the greatest gift he has is his total inability to worry. ‘The moment I start to think about a nasty subject it’s like picking up wet soap in a wet hand. It will not stay. Anxiety? Yes.’

There was, of course, deep anxiety at the realisation that his son Gary, now approaching 40, was born severely disabled. ‘But even that anxiety was soon followed by a surge of activity, to cope with it; to deal with it.’

Bob is chairman of the Stars Organisation for Spastics (SOS) [now absorbed into Scope – Ed] and is a leading fundraiser. But this is not simply because of Gary.

‘Most young entertainers with a bit of time on their hands are happy to do charity work. It seemed such a natural thing to do to me and I would have pursued it no matter how Gary had turned out.

‘But I wouldn’t have accepted the chairmanship of SOS until I had the time to devote to it because I don’t think that would be right.

‘I turn down any request to put my name on the letterhead of a charity if I think I can’t give it enough time. I think that would be seeking glory to which you’re not entitled.’

This, of course, is the real Bob Monkhouse. The public image, which is entirely the result of his work on television, is quite different … all smirk, smirk, and smarm, smarm.

‘Isn’t Rory Bremner brilliant? He has got me down pat,’ Bob says. ‘Am I offended? No, I find it a terrific compliment.

‘Maybe people like Rory will keep me alive after I’ve popped my clogs. Not that I worry about death. It never occurs to me that I am going to die.’

And so the very lively Bob Monkhouse goes on reading the papers, keeping an eye on the news and not worrying about life or why Ashby de la Zouch always gets a laugh.

 

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