Saturday, 31 December 2016

Bob Monkhouse: The Last Stand



In a word, fascinating.

In the summer of 2003 Bob Monkhouse performed before a specially invited audience of young comedians at the Albany Comedy Club. A few months later and Monkhouse was dead. This  show proved to be his last and it has never been broadcast until now. It is a remarkable document in the history of British comedy.

The night started out as a masterclass in stand up comedy. Monkhouse delivered gag after gag with impeccable timing and with a spiky humour a world away from the super slick game show host persona he  freely admits he had become saddled with. As audience member and impressionist Jon Culshaw remarks in one of the many present day talking heads that recall their memories of that evening, his delivery was like 'the Rolls Royce of comedy', something that - in the last ten years say before his demise - Monkhouse had been given the opportunity to prove with stand up becoming key entertainment for '90s TV.

But the evening took an unexpected turn for the audience when Monkhouse dropped the gags and took a seat to recall his contemporaries in British comedy -  Benny Hill, Tommy Cooper, Peter Sellers and Dickie Henderson - revealing candid, highly personal insights into his relationships and experiences with them, specifically Hill and Sellers. The personal, insightful nature of the evening then continues when Bob discusses his health, and the cancer that would take him later that year - he makes a point of informing the audience that he's alright and that the drugs are working even though, as Junior Simpson remarks in a talking head, the audience had a sense he wouldn't be here this time next year, and it's fair to say that the disease had altered his physical appearance at this stage; his face is rounder and swollen and his midriff is considerably swollen - before inviting the reclusive impressionist Mike Yarwood to the stage for a chat. Yarwood was one of this countries most popular entertainers in the 1970s with his '77 Christmas special attracted 21.4 million viewers, a ratings record that remains (and is unlikely to ever be) unbeaten, but by the mid '80s he retreated from the limelight amidst tales of alcoholism. In reality, as we discover via this sympathetic chat between the veteran performers, there was much more at play that led to Yarwood's premature retirement; a crippling anxiety disorder that saw him unable to perform at the same level ever again. It's a measure of Monkhouse's kindness and generosity that, during his last moment in the limelight, he's happy enough to share it with an old friend.

The evening ends with Monkhouse showing a similar level of generosity, throwing open to the floor for any questions the audience might have, including the opportunity to pass on tips to the up and coming comics who have sat in awe throughout. Some of these performers (Kevin Day, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Steel, Junior Simpson and Fiona Allen) return to discuss their recollections, which are peppered throughout the hour long film, whilst others are glimpsed in the room; a pre-fame and vast irritation levels David Walliams, mouth breathing in the front row, the gregarious cockney bruiser Ricky Grover, Jewish 'comic' Adam Bloom piping up in the Q and A, Dominic Holland and Peter Baynham.
In a word, fascinating.

In the summer of 2003 Bob Monkhouse performed before a specially invited audience of young comedians at the Albany Comedy Club. A few months later and Monkhouse was dead. This  show proved to be his last and it has never been broadcast until now. It is a remarkable document in the history of British comedy.

The night started out as a masterclass in stand up comedy. Monkhouse delivered gag after gag with impeccable timing and with a spiky humour a world away from the super slick game show host persona he  freely admits he had become saddled with. As audience member and impressionist Jon Culshaw remarks in one of the many present day talking heads that recall their memories of that evening, his delivery was like 'the Rolls Royce of comedy', something that - in the last ten years say before his demise - Monkhouse had been given the opportunity to prove with stand up becoming key entertainment for '90s TV.

But the evening took an unexpected turn for the audience when Monkhouse dropped the gags and took a seat to recall his contemporaries in British comedy -  Benny Hill, Tommy Cooper, Peter Sellers and Dickie Henderson - revealing candid, highly personal insights into his relationships and experiences with them, specifically Hill and Sellers. The personal, insightful nature of the evening then continues when Bob discusses his health, and the cancer that would take him later that year - he makes a point of informing the audience that he's alright and that the drugs are working even though, as Junior Simpson remarks in a talking head, the audience had a sense he wouldn't be here this time next year, and it's fair to say that the disease had altered his physical appearance at this stage; his face is rounder and swollen and his midriff is considerably swollen - before inviting the reclusive impressionist Mike Yarwood to the stage for a chat. Yarwood was one of this countries most popular entertainers in the 1970s with his '77 Christmas special attracted 21.4 million viewers, a ratings record that remains (and is unlikely to ever be) unbeaten, but by the mid '80s he retreated from the limelight amidst tales of alcoholism. In reality, as we discover via this sympathetic chat between the veteran performers, there was much more at play that led to Yarwood's premature retirement; a crippling anxiety disorder that saw him unable to perform at the same level ever again. It's a measure of Monkhouse's kindness and generosity that, during his last moment in the limelight, he's happy enough to share it with an old friend.

The evening ends with Monkhouse showing a similar level of generosity, throwing open to the floor for any questions the audience might have, including the opportunity to pass on tips to the up and coming comics who have sat in awe throughout. Some of these performers (Kevin Day, Reece Shearsmith, Mark Steel, Junior Simpson and Fiona Allen) return to discuss their recollections, which are peppered throughout the hour long film, whilst others are glimpsed in the room; a pre-fame and vast irritation levels David Walliams, mouth breathing in the front row, the gregarious cockney bruiser Ricky Grover, Jewish 'comic' Adam Bloom piping up in the Q and A, Dominic Holland and Peter Baynham.

Bob Monkhouse: The Last Stand was tucked away in the schedules of BBC4 this Christmas like a treasured Secret Santa. It remains available on the iPlayer and I strongly recommend anyone with an interest in comedy to seek it out immediately. If you never considered Monkhouse as anything other than 'that gameshow host', then it's all the more reason for you to seek it out and have your opinion changed for the better.

3 comments:

  1. Sounds interesting, thanks for the tip. Will watch that on catch up. Always thought Monkhouse was hilarious when given the chance to shine.

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  2. Growing up, Bob was the smarmy orange game show host. That was until the mid 90s when An Audience With ... and the videos Live & Forbidden and Exposes Himself were released.
    Here was an old fashioned gag man doing a better job than some of the current alternative comics - in short, he was brilliant and a decade of gameshows had robbed us unknowing minnions of the man.
    This was a great show showing the esteem he is/was held in by comics.
    The Mike Yarwood bit was a nice touch, and very genuine, and showed that Yarwood's legacy has been somewhat lost too.

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  3. Rol, it is definitely worth watching.

    Rigis, I totally agree. Being a child in the 80s I only knew Bob as the game show host (I used to love Bob's Full House as a kid) and from old films like Carry On Sergeant and Dentist In The Chair which would occasionally be screened of an afternoon. It was the 90s as you point out that we got a chance to see the real Monkhouse and, as a comedy fan in my teens, seeing him do his thing was a revelation.

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