In 2003, Bob Monkhouse performed one last gig in front of an audience of comedians. This Christmas it was broadcast on BBC Four for the first time. Here is my review.
The late Bob Monkhouse spent the last few years of his life making a show about his comedy heroes, before passing away in December of 2003. Earlier that year though, he invited a small audience to The Albany Comedy Club for one last stand-up performance. Clips of that show are in 2011’s excellent documentary The Secret Life Of Bob Monkhouse, but this programme from BBC Four shows his last performance in full for the first time. There are contributions from Junior Simpson, Kevin Day, Fiona Allen, Reece Shearsmith, Jon Culshaw, and Mark Steel dropped into the show as well, all of whom were invited by Monkhouse personally to the show.
Like most, my main memories of Bob Monkhouse are of him as a game show host. Personally it is a daytime show called Wipeout that I remember most vividly, mostly when I should probably have been going to lectures. He was so much more than just a game show host though, being a prodigious joke writer as well as a performer. I can remember a brilliant appearance on Have I Got News For You around the time his joke books had been stolen from his home, and his political, topical material was as good as anyone you have ever seen on that show. While channel surfing, I vividly remember him doing a slot on that Des O’Connor/Mel Sykes afternoon show, and despite being obviously ill (he didn’t walk on stage to an introduction, he was seated during a commercial break) he absolutely had the audience in the palm of his hand. He was also on the very first episode of Room 101, and was one of the best guests they ever had. In fact, he was famous for supporting young talent and new shows. He brought over many American comedians for his chat show in the 80s, including Robin Williams and Jim Carrey, and voiced Mr Hell in cult animation Aaagh! It’s the Mr Hell Show! in 2001. He also had a legendary appetite for the history of comedy as well, with at least half a dozen supposedly lost TV shows being found in his personal collection after his death.
Anyway, onto the show. The performance itself is an absolute masterclass. He starts out with a bit of standard material – all new, current stuff, with just one old chestnut thrown in – and despite his age and illness, he is as slick and smooth as ever. Monkhouse then transitions into telling stories about some of the comedy greats he worked with, and this is an outstanding insight into his legendary career. He tells stories about working with Peter Sellers and Tommy Cooper early in their careers, giving a peek into the formative experiences they had. He then brings out Mike Yarwood for what basically turns into a chat about comedy between two old friends. The show then ends with an all too brief Q and A with the audience.
This is remarkable show, and I would recommend anyone with any interest in comedy checks it out. If you enjoy the older comedians, his stories are fantastic, and as far as I am aware he has never talked about them before. Although he is far too modest to claim it, he obviously had a huge effect on the careers of people like Sellers and Cooper, who went on to become comedy legends. There’s also some great stories about hecklers that close out the show, and his interview with Mike Yarwood – once the most popular comedian on TV but by then a virtual recluse – is brilliant. Yarwood’s Christmas show of 1977 is the most watched Christmas Special ever (with an audience of 21.4 million it pulled in more viewers than Morecambe and Wise), but his popularity faded in the 1980s. Monkhouse obviously sympathises with this, but the conversation between the two shows just how giving he was – in his last ever show he wants to give a platform to another performer!
The dropped-in talking heads show the admiration the more modern comedians had for him, and simply being invited to the show is like a badge of honour to them. But look again at the list of contributors – Monkhouse didn’t invite a bunch of old mates or go for the big names to stroke his ego. The League Of Gentlemen had just made it to TV, but he name drops them alongside The Goons and Monty Python when talking about creating comedy worlds – and you can almost see the shock in Reece Shearsmith’s face. He gushes with pride that Monkhouse even knew who they were, and how vindicated he felt just by being mentioned by them. And who would have thought the slick Monkhouse (who modeled himself on Bob Hope) would enjoy the bizarre, dark stylings of The League Of Gentlemen? Similarly, Fiona Allen was riding the wave of Smack The Pony, a cult Channel 4 sketch show. David Walliams is in the front row, but this was before Little Britain had even been broadcast. Jon Culshaw was an impressionist on Dead Ringers, a completely different show – but Monkhouse was a fan of them all!
Kevin Day admits in the show he is a good, solid, but not great, stand-up, but Monkhouse saw something in him (and Junior Simpson), comedians who maybe gave too much of their best material away. But Monkhouse was a true great. His influence is still felt over a decade after his death, whether it’s the smart suit and control of a John Bishop or Michael McIntrye, or Milton Jones delivering one liner after one liner, or Jimmy Carr’s.. well everything. In this very show, he tells a joke I saw literally the week before on Imgur, when talking about his failing health after being diagnosed with bowel cancer. He asked the doctor how long he had to live, and the doctor said “Ten”.
“Ten what? Months? Weeks?”
Bob Monkhouse: The Last Stand is available on iPlayer (the link is below) for the next month in the UK and I suggest that you watch it right now.
Stay gold Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.