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

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Deaths And Obituaries - Jim Bowen

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 halfhour 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.

Photo: ITV/Rex

SU­PER, SMASHIN’: Pre­sen­ter Jim Bowen with one of Bully’s Star Prizes on ‘Bulls­eye’ in 1993.

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