If Bob Monkhouse had bludgeoned his own mother to death with an entrenching tool, calmly burnt down an orphanage and then experimented openly with cannibalism during a Royal Variety Performance, it is doubtful whether the poor chap’s critics could have come up with stronger words of disapprobation than those they have already levelled at him over the years. ‘Despicable’, ‘slimy’ and ‘chilling’ are typical examples.
While it is a pretty serious crime to spend a lifetime irritating people in the name of light entertainment, surely Monkhouse never deserved to be roughed up quite as excessively as he has been in the past – or indeed, despite his recent rehabilitation as a hero of comedy, as he still sometimes is today. He’s an old man now. He probably wears carpet slippers. Being cruel to him just doesn’t seem funny any more.
When I meet him on an overcast late summer afternoon at his l6th-century redbrick farmhouse in rural Bedfordshire, he is still licking his wounds from a mauling he had received a few days earlier. ‘His delivery is like being touched up by a Moonie encyclopaedia salesman,’ wrote AA Gill. ‘Every mannerism drips insincerity and smarm. It’s like having margarine massaged into your hair. No, it’s like wearing marzipan socks.’ Gill added that he hopes he is never introduced to Bob Monkhouse in person for fear of finding him terribly nice, amusing and thoughtful. ‘A loathing of his every syllable and nuance is one of the cornerstones of my critical edifice,’ Gill continued. ‘If I ever found I liked him, my world would collapse.’
Inevitably, when you come face to face with Monkhouse you do find him terribly nice, amusing and thoughtful. That is his tragedy. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered anyone who needs to be liked quite as much as this man. Nor, with the obvious exception of Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare, anyone quite so effortlessly capable of rendering his or her public persona unlovable. On stage, Monkhouse has some of the sharpest lines you’ll ever hear: ‘They laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. They’re not laughing now.’ Or, ‘I’m a hard man to ignore. But well worth the effort.’ Or, ‘I’d like to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like his passengers.’ But he just seems to try too hard when he’s telling them. He shoots his cuffs, smiles and chews too much. His quick-fire patter is too polished and hammy. At home, by contrast, he speaks slowly and croakily in a subdued and wistful voice. He seems languid, gentle and relaxed – not at all repulsive. That distinctive mole on the chin is still there, as is the permanently arched eyebrow. But instead of a dinner-jacket he wears an embroidered beach shirt, its tails untucked, its buttons undone to reveal the sort of tanned, leathery chest you would expect a 70-year-old show-business personality to have.
‘The irritant factor is still there,’ Monkhouse says with a sigh, as he leans toward me across a wrought-iron garden table. ‘In full. Apparently. I don’t get upset about bad reviews from intelligent writers. What I hate is people like AA Gill who attack me personally and who are blisteringly unpleasant. I inhabit that persona he rejects – and it hurts. In the same way that someone refusing to shake your hand is hurtful. And, anyway, he misses the point when he complains that I am insincere. When did I ever say I was offering sincerity? I’m not coming out and saying, “I really mean that, folks.” I’m not offering exhortations to be brave or patriotic or spiritually uplifted. The only thing I’m sincere about is that I sincerely want you to laugh.’
It would take Lake Windermere dropped from the sky to dampen Monkhouse’s enthusiasm for making people laugh. Writing jokes is a compulsion for him. Throw any topical subject his way and, instantaneously, he will be able to turn it into a one-liner. His photographic memory helps. As Harry Thompson, producer of Have I Got News for You, has said, his skill is that he knows so many old jokes he can manufacture a new one for any situation using the component parts of others. But going to the grave obsessively thinking up jokes is one thing, attempting to perform them as you go is another. Monkhouse says he used to find it depressing when old heroes of his didn’t know when to retire. ‘I would see Flanagan and Allen trying to cavort on stage when they were clearly close to their dotage. The lower eyelid had fallen from the eye. Their timing was out. It was painful to watch. But now I’m 70 I can understand why they did it. They had nothing to fall back on. The joy I still get from confecting comedy is extreme.’
Every profession has terrifyingly ambitious types unfettered by obvious natural ability who, nevertheless, rise by virtue of their persistence and self-belief. Journalism is full of them. The Royal Navy had Lord Mountbatten, who was so mediocre and accident-prone that the Admiralty had to keep promoting him to get him out of its way. I suspect that Bob Monkhouse is the comedy world’s equivalent. That’s not to say he isn’t an inspired gag writer. Nor to deny that he is probably the world’s leading expert on the techniques of comedy, as is clear from reading his autobiography Crying with Laughter. It is full of self-deprecating anecdotes, salacious gossip and analysis of comic technique. At one time or another Monkhouse has worked with nearly all the big names in post-War comedy, so he is uniquely placed to dissect their work.
Sitting in his garden, the soothing bill and coo of woodpigeons in the background, Monkhouse becomes animated. He strips jokes down to show me how they work. He explains the principles of timing, ‘the rule of three’, and the Arthur Askey ‘check step’ you should take before delivering your ‘topper’. Clearly, when it comes to tinkering around under the bonnet of comedy with the, um, monkey-wrench of laughter, he is a master mechanic. The trouble is, on stage, he’s never learned to make it look as if he isn’t – in the way that, say, the apparently rambling, vague and amateurish Eddie Izzard does. Even Monkhouse seems to know this in his heart. ‘I actually can’t watch myself on television,’ he says. ‘Yesterday I tried to sit through a tape of a new “best of” compilation that they are making. But I couldn’t watch this man.’ So why has he gone on punishing himself – and AA Gill – for so many years? Given that his parents assumed he could never make a decent living from his profession, it might be that in the early years he was driven by a need to prove them wrong and – an almost impossible feat, this – win their approval.
Growing up in Beckenham, Kent, the closest young Robert came to his father – ‘a prematurely balding chartered accountant who had a habitual dislike of people’ – was when he was struck by him so hard he had to go to hospital to be stitched. The blow had been provoked by Robert accidentally dropping his towel while stepping out of the tin bath in front of the fire. His mother was told that he had fallen off his bike and, for a while, Robert and his father were ‘co-conspirators, sharing a male secret, allied in a lie that only we knew about’.
His relationship with his mother was much less comfortable. When the 21-year-old Bob married against her wishes she didn’t speak to him again until he was 41. Prove his parents wrong Monkhouse most certainly did. He left Dulwich College in London at the age of 17 and immediately started writing gags for such music-hall turns as Arthur Askey, Jimmy Edwards and Max Miller. National Service interrupted his budding career but he used it to his advantage by conning his way into a job at the BBC – he duped an army psychiatrist into signing a letter requesting an audition on the grounds that it would be the only cure for Corporal Monkhouse’s delusional psychosis. By the late Forties and early Fifties Monkhouse was appearing in his own television and radio comedy programmes as well as writing material for just about every big star, from Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
In 1958, he starred in Carry On Sergeant, the first Carry On film, and would have gone on to take the Jim Dale and Roy Castle roles in subsequent films had he not been offered three times as much money to play the lead in Dentist in the Chair (1959), something which seemed sensible at the time but which he now regrets. His career flagged in the mid-Sixties only to take off again in 1967 with The Golden Shot, which at its peak had 16 million viewers. Monkhouse went through a bad patch again in 1972, when he was sacked from the programme for taking a bribe (a photography book and a Wilkinson Sword razor). He has always been an obsessive collector – or rather hoarder – of things, from stamps to tins of food and old films. This obsession brought him to his lowest point: he was arrested in 1978 for conspiracy to defraud film companies by illegally importing films for his private collection (he was subsequently cleared of all charges).
In the Eighties, Monkhouse hosted a string of game shows but by then he had become lumped in the public imagination with Jimmy Tarbuck, Frank Carson and Jim Davidson, the old school of unreconstructed and unfunny television stars. ‘I thought I’d had my day,’ he says, shaking his head at the memory. ‘My career had slowed down. They’d cancelled The 64 Million Dollar Question and Bob’s Your Uncle. There was nothing for me at the BBC. It depressed me. Briefly.’ Then in 1993, against everyone’s advice, he was interviewed for Radio 4’s In the Psychiatrist’s Chair, and everything changed. He cut a sympathetic figure. He was asked to write an autobiography; it became a bestseller. He appeared on Have I Got News for You, presented himself as a dry and poker-faced wit, and stole the show. Stephen Fry said how much he had always admired him, and his reinvention was complete.
Today, at 70, Monkhouse has never been more in demand: presenting the Lottery, hosting Wipeout, a daytime quiz show, and packing out theatres again as a stand-up. An armchair psychiatrist might devise a theory about how Monkhouse, a comedian who can’t stand watching himself, was driven masochistically by the need to win parental approval. But this won’t quite wash. He seems to crave attention and admiration from everyone. And egomaniacs are often full of self-doubt. You can tell he’s only half-joking when he describes himself as a shallow, selfish, cowardly liar. ‘I’m aware of my own inadequacies but I’m not tortured by them,’ he says with a shrug. ‘I know that I’ve been a fool and made some stupid decisions in the past. As a performer I wish I had had a dark side. But tyranny was not within my compass. All I have is a perky mind. Not a mind of any depth. Which is another source of regret. I’m superficial. Skittering around on the surface all the time. I wish I had done a degree. Even sociology would have done.’
I had always thought the thing that set Bob Monkhouse apart from just about every other successful comedian you can think of was that he seemed so boringly sane and calculating. (Think how unbalanced Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams and Benny Hill were. And look at John Cleese, Stephen Fry and Ken Dodd. Cuckoo to a man.) Now I’m not so sure. Neither is Monkhouse. ‘Am I mad?’ he asks. ‘I don’t know. It depends on your definition. Not mad. Just silly. And that’s probably been my saving grace. Being silly. That’s probably the nicest thing about me. I’m soppy, juvenile and I have a light heart. I’m desperately affected by emotions. But I have no angst.’
Another saving grace may be that he is too thick-skinned to develop a persecution complex or to wallow in melancholy. ‘Self-pity is as habit-forming, corrosive to the spirit and delusory as any narcotic,’ he believes. ‘You have to concentrate on its absurdity and mock it out of your mind.’ At school he had an obesity problem caused by a dodgy thyroid (it was later successfully treated). When he was mocked about it (‘Fatty Arbuckle’) he wouldn’t get upset, he’d just withdraw into his own world and draw cartoons. His work was published by the Beano and Dandy while he was a schoolboy.
He still sees things in simple cartoon terms. ‘It’s a lovely way to see the world. If you can get away with it.’ He says that he is constitutionally incapable of worry and that he nearly always feels happy. ‘And sometimes I wonder whether I shouldn’t shut up about it, because that might awaken a great deal of irritation and envy in itself.’ A sunny disposition can be a defence mechanism against pain, though – albeit a healthy form of denial. In the past, Monkhouse has been so repressed mentally, he has reacted to traumatic events physically. When his grandfather died, the ten-year-old Robert lost the ability to speak for three months and was afterwards left with a stutter. He and his first wife had four stillborn babies before Gary was born in 1951. Gary had cerebral palsy, and Monkhouse began suffering from blinding migraine attacks which continued until Gary died in 1992.
When his wife went into labour with their second child, Monkhouse was so apprehensive he developed a strange burping complaint and thought he was going to die. (The baby was fine and the couple went on to have another healthy child and Bob stopped burping.) On one occasion while presenting The Golden Shot he broke down in tears as he read out a letter sent in by a blind elderly widow who needed £20 to replace her beloved radio, stolen by thieves. Later in the same show, someone made him laugh and this turned into a bout of uncontrollable giggling that lasted for more than half a minute.
Has he trained his agile brain to be shallow and his outlook to be permanently happy for fear of falling victim to the dark emotional forces he suppresses? ‘I had a great urge to be liked,’ he says. ‘I think I was absolutely two people. I was the child my parents expected me to be. Unemotional. But only because I suppressed that side of me. I became reserved. My mother saw all signs of emotion as being weak and despicable. Despicable. I would hear her speak of people who were loud or flamboyant, or who wept, with utter contempt. My father was the same: a joyless, lugubrious man. Eventually I escaped them and today I wish I could go back and embrace them and understand them and still be myself.’
He pauses and studies his fingers. ‘I think I invented a facade. I didn’t love the person I was. It wasn’t until my first marriage failed and I fell in love with Jackie and she with me that I actually began to like myself.’ Jackie had been his secretary for ten years before he married her in 1973. He describes her as being gregarious in ways which he is not, always on the phone and wanting to socialise. ‘She has a more realistic view of people than I do. She says, ‘He isn’t a very nice man; she’s a bitch,’ and I can never see it. I’m always looking at how people react to me, not how they are themselves. Selfishness takes some strange forms.’ Jackie is 62, tall and blonde with apple cheeks and impossibly white teeth which she flashes when she smiles. As we are talking in the garden, she shouts across from the kitchen, ‘Can I have a word, Bob?’ ‘Yes, darling,’ he says, immediately rising and heading over to where she is standing in the doorway. I overhear her saying, ‘And he was just so rude.’
When Monkhouse returns he is looking sheepish and explains that when our photographer arrived he had told him that it would be okay to have a look around the house for a suitable place to set up a shot, but that Jackie had found him upstairs in the bedroom. The photographer now emerges looking equally sheepish and begins looking for locations in the large garden instead. ‘He’s probably a genius,’ Bob says shaking his head as he watches our man disappear from view behind a weeping willow.
Because his parents argued all the time, Bob Monkhouse hates confrontation. In the 25 years he has been happily married he has only had three arguments with his wife. About the same thing. He cannot keep his side of the house tidy. He snores and so the couple have separate bedrooms in different wings; they also have a shared room in the middle. With disarming candour he tells me his sex life improved recently after he started taking Viagra. ‘It works after 40 minutes and lasts for about 90 minutes. I’ll give you one to try if you like, I’ve got them upstairs.’
He may now be a kind, fond and foolish 70-year-old who says he is at the age where happiness is finding his glasses soon enough to remember what it was he wanted them for. But he is still obsessed with sex, or ‘making love’, as he always calls it. His memoirs were notable for their embarrassing frankness on this subject and contained a gripping account of his five-hour romp with Diana Dors and his subsequent terror when her husband, a gangster figure, found out, produced a razor and threaten to ‘slit his eyeballs’. His encounter with a transsexual had an equally comic outcome: ‘It was like plunging your feet into an apple-pie bed.’
Compared with what his generation got up to, the young stars of today must seem like a pretty tame bunch. ‘Yes, my lot were at it all day long, as well as all night. They did it a lot more than the previous generation – they had all been too frightened of pregnancy. In my day syphilis had all but disappeared. There were various forms of reliable protection, condoms, the cap and so forth. I was fortunate with the timing. Just as I am fortunate with Viagra now.’ He adopts a serious face. ‘I was promiscuous. I think I did keep count. I could have said 137 at one point and virtually named them. But after a while it all seemed a bit vague. The press didn’t know about what went on then and wouldn’t have written about it if they did. Now, if I was on location in Manchester and I asked the porter to send a girl up to my room, the next day she would get £10,000 from the Sun for her story.’
Matter-of-factly he says of the serial adultery in his first marriage that he simply wasn’t happy being monogamous. ‘My first wife and I had only stayed together for Gary. He was the most important thing in my life for 40 years.’ Pause. ‘I miss him so much. If he were here, he would be contentedly drawing over there with his right foot and would look at you and put his toe up to say it was okay you being here because he liked the look of you. But after an hour he would come over and tap you on the shoulder because he would think you had been here long enough. He was a martinet. But he had the personality of a star. And he was knock-down handsome. I’ll show you a photo. But he could never speak nor hear nor stand or sit unaided. I would sit and talk to him for hours in that room there.’ He points to a downstairs window. ‘He couldn’t hear me but I felt I could confide everything to him. He loved it and he would hug me with his legs.’
Gary Monkhouse was brought up at home but when his condition worsened he became a resident at his choice of centres for the disabled. In 1992, just before he died, he expressed a fondness for another occupant, a young woman whose physical impairments were even greater than his own. Because the local clergy would not agree to conduct a wedding because they couldn’t be certain that both participants fully understood the undertaking, a church blessing was arranged instead. The Sunday Mirror ran a front-page story to the effect that Monkhouse, by not recognising the occasion as a real wedding, was denying the woman her proper status as a wife. When Monkhouse read it he burst into tears. A few weeks later the paper printed a front-page apology and retraction. ‘That was awful,’ Monkhouse says, averting his eyes. ‘I was horrified to see pictures inside which made Gary look disfigured and foolish. It upset me deeply and I felt utter contempt for the editor. I didn’t want Gary to see that bloody paper. Some stupid bastard showed it to him.’
Denis Norden describes reminiscing as the most fun an older person can have without actually having much fun. For Monkhouse it seems to be as haunting an experience as it is a pleasurable one. Half of his old show-business friends are now dead, he says. ‘Yet it’s funny, you know. I can see Bernie Winters walking around that house now as clearly as I can see you.’ His eye lingers on the ghost for an unnervingly long time before a twitch of his saturnine eyebrow brings me back into focus. ‘The other day I went to the phone to call Tony Hawes [a writer on The Des O’Connor Show]. He’s been dead two years. That wasn’t just forgetfulness. It was an overwhelming urge to share a piece of information with him. I can’t believe Tony’s not there.’
Not so long ago, Monkhouse had an intimation of his own eventual death. ‘I had a blip called a cerebral infarction where my face sort of slid south.’ He pulls a lopsided face. ‘It only lasted a week but I was sure I’d had a stroke.’ He went for a cat scan and when nothing showed up he asked if he had lost brain cells from alcohol abuse over the years. The doctor said he hadn’t and added that his liver was in perfect condition, too. Monkhouse still drinks a fair amount of wine and whisky and never suffers from hangovers. I tell him he’s a jammy bugger. ‘Exactly! I’ve never told anyone that before because I was afraid that would be the reaction I’d get.’
The inevitability of his own death does not frighten him, he says, it just makes him curious to know what it will be like. ‘I don’t think there’s going to be anything there.’ If there is an afterlife and he is called to account, could Monkhouse say that he had been a good man in this life? ‘Oh, I think so. An inoffensive one. I think so. I’ve never done anything deliberately mean. I stole when I was a teenager but nothing considerable. I’m harmless. I just tell jokes. I know I’ve irritated people but that’s more about them than it is about me.’
Friendly, he certainly is. Although I doubt he is as irrepressibly cheerful as he claims to be. Guileless is a word that could be applied. He will try to answer any question you ask, however personal. For one who earns his living in a profession fuelled by high-octane ego, he even exhibits surprising humility. On the directions to his house which he had faxed to me he had written ‘here are my directions’ and then crossed out the word ‘my’. And he is happier than most to regale you with stories which don’t reflect well. Eric Sykes, he says, always hated him. When they met recently, Sykes said, ‘I don’t know, Bob, my memory’s getting so bad. Can you remember why have I disliked you so much for all these years?’ Monkhouse said he had no idea. ‘No?’ Sykes shrugged. ‘Oh well, be bloody stupid to stop now.’
It is four o’clock, time for Monkhouse to take the Chinese remedy he hopes will cure him of his vitiligo, a skin condition which leaves his face and hands piebald, and which he covers up with masking make-up. The herbal cure is a sort of tea made of garden sweepings, he says. He has been taking it for six weeks, but it hasn’t worked yet. On my way out I pause to admire a large Monet hanging in the hall. Jackie appears and points out that it’s a fake. In their second home in Barbados they have a Picasso which is also a copy. Jackie makes light of having had a wobbly earlier about the photographer, ‘But I just don’t understand what he was doing snooping about up there. It’s so untidy.’ At the door, Bob Monkhouse says under his breath, ‘Please be kind.’ There is no laughter in his voice but I smile back at him. I should have said, ‘Be bloody stupid to start now.’ But the line doesn’t come to me until I am halfway back to London. And anyway it would probably have stuck in my throat.
In 2001 Bob Monkhouse’s estranged son, Simon, died of a heroin overdose in a guesthouse in Tailand. He was 46.