Thursday 21 November 2019

Obituary: Jim Bowen

Former teacher and comic who became the unlikely popular host of Bullseye

Super, Smashin’: Presenter Jim Bowen with one of Bully’s Star Prizes on ‘Bullseye’ in 1993. Photo: ITV/Rex
Super, Smashin’: Presenter Jim Bowen with one of Bully’s Star Prizes on ‘Bullseye’ in 1993. Photo: ITV/Rex

Jim Bowen, who has died aged 80, became an unlikely television star in the 1980s when he hosted ITV's prime time dart-throwing game Bullseye, a show that by any conventional lights should have died a mercifully early death.

Indeed, Bowen anticipated such a fate - appealingly self-deprecating, he considered both himself and the show to be "crap". He never expected that it would run for a decade and a half.

Bowen's halting line in bluff northern chat ran the gamut from "smashin' " through "super" to "great". He would bump into the scenery, struggled to look into the right camera, and was the most cloth-eared of comperes. An early exchange with one contestant passed into television lore: "Hello, Ken, and what do you do for a living?"

"I'm unemployed, Jim."

"Smashin', Ken, super."

In embarrassment ATV, which initially made Bullseye, was said to have destroyed the first two episodes because they were so dire. But millions of viewers loved it and it ran for 15 seasons on the ITV network between 1981 and 1995, making it a Sunday teatime institution.

"What the public liked about Bullseye," Bowen declared, "was its fallibility." As the bewildered-looking host, he gave the impression that he did not understand what was going on. But the format could not have been simpler.

In front of a live audience, three pairs of amateurs competed against each other, one from each pair ("the thrower") throwing a dart to pick a category of question which his or her partner ("the knower") had to answer. A professional darts player would at times lumber on to help out by sinking some well-aimed darts of his own.

At stake was a gleaming car, caravan or speedboat, or for those who missed out on the top prize - which was almost everyone - a collection of tea sets, garden barbecues or (the ultimate ignominy) a bendy toy version of the programme's mascot, a pop-eyed cartoon bull called Bully who slid in and out of the corner of the screen, winking, gurning and wearing an ill-fitting dart player's smock.

With its threadbare pleasantries - Bowen once uttered 43 "smashin's" in one half-hour programme - and casually cruel catchphrases ("Let's look at what you could have won"), Bullseye was derided as flat-footed and plebeian.

This was not so far removed from Bowen's public persona of a gaffe-prone dolt.

His (largely working-class) audiences admired his straightfaced schtick more than some of Bowen's peers: Bob Monkhouse mused that Bowen reminded him of Charlie Chaplin "because Chaplin never said anything funny either". Bowen used the remark in his autobiography.

He remained at the Bullseye helm until 1995 when, after 326 editions, ITV chiefs finally cancelled the show.

Bowen said: "We were getting an average of 11m viewers a week, but mainly because nobody could be arsed to turn it off."

Jim Bowen was born Peter Williams on August 20, 1937 at Heswall, Cheshire, to an unmarried mother from the Wirral who placed him in a Liverpool children's home. Adopted by a family at Accrington, east Lancashire, he was renamed James Brown Whittaker and educated at Nelson and Accrington Grammar Schools.

In 1955, he began his National Service as an ammunition examiner in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. At the height of the Suez crisis in 1956, he sent the wrong batch of ammunition to Barry docks. The mistake was spotted in time, but Cpl Whittaker was swiftly re-assigned to Aldershot to become a PT instructor.

This fitness qualification encouraged him to become a PE teacher.

By 1971 he was working part-time as a stand-up comedian, under the stage name Jim Bowen.

He honed his skills on the tough northern club circuit, while moonlighting from his day job.

When Granada launched The Comedians, Belfast-born comedian Frank Carson recommended him to the producer, Johnny Hamp, and Bowen gave up his teaching job.

Hamp recorded chunks of club comics' acts and intercut them into quickfire gag sessions. It made Bowen's name.

In 1980, he was picked as the host of Bullseye, the fifth contender, he used to say, on a shortlist of five.

Although he had rehearsed the game using regulars at his local pub, Bowen found it hard to hit his stride.

At dawn on the morning after the first show, Bowen's newsagent rang with instructions not to open the Daily Mirror.

"What is this balding, innumerate, illiterate geriatric doing on our screens at prime time, presenting such a shambles of a game show?" demanded the reviewer.

His other television credits included The Wheeltappers and Shunters' Social Club, Up For the Cup and Starburst. Guest appearances included Celebrity Squares, Family Fortunes and Des O'Connor Tonight.

Bowen also took acting roles in drama and situation comedies, and played several cameo parts in Last of the Summer Wine.

He was the long-suffering barman Alf in a campaign of 14 commercials for Tetley Bitter. Jim Bowen married, in 1959, Phyllis Owen, who survives him with their son and daughter.

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