Despite my stroke I'm still super, smashing, great! Bullseye's Jim Bowen on staging a comeback
22:51 GMT, 31 May 2012
At Grimsargh village hall outside Preston, Lancashire, I’m helping set out the chairs for Jim Bowen’s return to public performance 15 months after a stroke.
He turns up, with the aid of a neighbour, leaning on a stick and edging forward, his left arm and hand immobile, his speech slightly slurred.
Like the contestants who aimed their darts at the Bullseye board on the famed Eighties TV show he compered, Bowen, now 74, has a similar look of purpose as he prepares for nearly two hours of reminiscence, gags and affectionate questions from the audience.
Bullseye: Jim Bowen in the Eighties with Bully on the popular show
He’s determined to get back on the road and revive some of the life the stroke robbed him of. Up until that day in February last year, he was busy with cruise liner appearances and corporate after-dinner speeches.
‘In this situation, you fight to make sure the demon of defeat doesn’t get on top. I don’t want to pack it in,’ he says before the gig.
Later, after the show, he adds: ‘I need a reason to get out of bed because once you give in — and I have been near to it — you’re finished. There have been moments when it has been dark, but never black.
‘The stroke damaged me psychologically. I realised I wasn’t going to be able to do most of the things I want to. That’s why I fight to walk because if I can walk, even like this, I can live with this.’ He touches his limp left arm.
‘I’ll carry that. I don’t want it to drop off. If it went I’d think I had been cheated. But I am not bothered if it has a rest.
‘The biggest problem is people staring because they know who I am. I don’t want to give them grief. Emotionally, I am fragile and it doesn’t take a lot to knock you.
‘The attitude from the public is one of affection. People open doors and say “Come on, Jim” and try not to be patronising.’
In repair: Bowen will take to the stage for his comedic shows
Bowen made his name on ITV’s The Comedians before presenting Bullseye, a curious mix of darts and a pub quiz show, which ran from 1981 to 1995.
It can still be seen on daily repeats on Challenge TV. One suspects part of its retro popularity is the insight it gives into a less complicated age.
In the Eighties, Jim was famous enough to be lampooned on Spitting Image spouting: ‘Super. Smashing. Great.’ It was never his catchphrase, though he did say each word rather a lot. Terry Wogan once calculated 41 utterances of ‘smashing’ in a 25-minute show.
There were catchphrases beloved of fans of the show: ‘You can’t beat a bit of Bully’ — a reference to the game’s mascot, a bull in a dart player’s shirt. It’s also the title of Bowen’s live show. Then there was ‘BFH’ — bus fare home, which was all people would get if they didn’t win.
The prizes were celebrated for being inappropriate — a couple from a tower block in Walsall won a speedboat — or undesirable — an alarm clock for every room.
He comments on his ineptitude as a host in his act, but the gaffes were part of his charm. ‘I was so poor at the game show game,’ he says. ‘I’d say: “What do you do for a living” They’d reply: “I’ve been unemployed for two years.” And I’d say: “Smashing!” It was just a word to give me a chance to think.
‘Getting the Bullseye job was 90 per cent luck. I always said the game was the star. It was downmarket, but accessible. Joe Public could identify with my fallibilities.
‘Game shows today are too high-tech with a 1 million prize. The nice thing about us was they were excited if they won a toaster. But that was 31 years ago when not every household had a toaster. People lose sight of that.’
Before the stroke, he was in good health. However, his love of three or four pints a night at his local village pub in the Lune Valley, Lancashire, and the emphysema despite quitting smoking 80 cigarettes a day in 1973 didn’t help.
When the show was pulling in ratings of up to 19 million viewers in its heyday on ITV contestants would dream of going home with a spanking new caravan or boat
‘A doctor came to see my show in Clacton in 1973. I couldn’t breathe and he diagnosed emphysema. He said: “If you don’t stop now, in three years you will be dead.” I pushed my gold Dupont lighter and 80 Embassy across the table to him and said: “I’ve stopped.”
‘On the night I had the stroke, there was no warning. I got back from the pub and my leg went funny. I went to bed, got up in the middle of the night, then my leg went again. So we rang the ambulance and I was taken to the Royal Lancaster Infirmary, where I stayed five weeks.’
He jokes in his routine that the physiotherapist who visits him once a week was expelled from the SS for cruelty. The reality is that Phyllis, his wife of 53 years, observes the sessions and helps with his exercises — something she is qualified to do.
They met when training as PE teachers. Bowen became a deputy head before giving it up to become a comedian on the northern club circuit.
You hear echoes of his schoolmaster past in his conversation — appreciating what you’ve got, discipline, hard graft.
Born on the Wirral to an unmarried mother, he was adopted as a baby and brought up in Accrington by Joe, a brickworker, and Annie, a weaver in a mill. He was named after his father’s friend, who died in World War I.
‘Mum and dad were working class, honest to a fault. I was thinking about them last night. My dad was in World War I and had seen the carnage in Ypres.
‘He never said “Well done.” I passed my 11-plus at nine years old. Running to him, I said: “Dad, dad, I’ve passed.” He just looked at me and said: “Good.” He didn’t show any emotion.
‘He never put his arm around me, and it completely flattened me. That was how he was. I was the same with my son, and I paid for it.’
At Christmas 1992, his son Pete, then 18, was arrested for dealing ecstasy. After 24 hours in police cells, he was cautioned and released.
Bullseye used a unique format where darts were used to select general knowledge categories and was a Sunday afternoon tradition
At the time Bowen said his son’s involvement with drugs had ‘destroyed’ him and his wife. ‘He gave us 12 months of nightmares,’ he says today. On TV, Bowen was a genial host. At home he was a disciplinarian. He was not tactile with Pete and daughter Susan. ‘I didn’t show them I was proud of them, though I think they knew.’
The similarity with his father is not lost on him, though he is unrepentant. Does he blame himself for Pete taking the wrong path ‘There were elements in his life that were cruel to him, apart from anything I did.’
Pete had been a rugby player. Then, at the age of 15, he had to have first one leg in plaster to the top of the thigh for three months, then the other.
‘He grew too fast for his legs. Up to then he’d been a brilliant rugby player, but then he went off the rails.
‘I know Pete felt he’d let me down. Our relationship has always been close, but perhaps we haven’t opened the door to show it. I am proud of him. He has made a fine gentleman.’
Pete, now 40, lives in Tenerife and works for a drinks distribution company.
Susan, who graduated from Durham University with a degree in Chinese and business management, became vice-president at financial conglomerate Citigroup before retiring ‘seriously wealthy’, according to her father, three years ago at the age of 39. She’s married with two children.
Despite his setbacks, Bowen is not self-pitying.
‘I’ve always felt fortunate. I have always said: “Thank you.” There have been times, like when a mate was seriously ill, where I’ve looked up and said to Him: “Hey, come on now.”
‘What am I doing complaining because I can’t walk properly and spit at people now and again when I’m speaking. What right have I He’s got loads of other people to look after.’
JIM BOWEN: You Can’t Beat A Bit Of Bully is at the Civic Arts Centre, Oswaldtwistle, July 7, and Burnley Mechanics, October 24. Book at www. ovationtheatres.com