A think cloud of smoke drifts out of a homemade smoking device and gently creeps its way through the air and wafts over a TV that illuminates a small, stuffy attic room. Someone speaks in a drawl about ‘bifftas’ but the two other people present in the room pay him no mind at all, everyone is on their own trip and anyway, it’s approaching 10pm and Bullseye is almost upon us.
Jim Bowen – aka Mr. Bullseye – opens the show with his usual comedic panache and quips that as of today (this is waaaay back in 1980 something) Bullseye is the second best darts based game show on the box. There is no other darts based TV game show and the irony is not lost on Jim. For guys of a certain age, Bullseye is a rite of passage, like Coronation Street for your ma. Every Thursday the TV is tuned to Challenge and we patiently await the double bill of Bullseye, passing the time by filling the room with as much sweet smelling smoke as we can muster. But you mustn’t misunderstand. Getting baked is not part of the package but it sure helps to get involved in the hustle and bustle of the game show. The basic outline is quite simple. Six northern souls are plucked from their everyday lives and placed in front of Jim and a studio audience.
Each team has a darts man and a questions man. One throws the darts, his partner answers the questions. A sample question would go something like ‘How do you spell…Misanthrope’ the answer would result in getting either 50 quid or nowt and another team having the opportunity of stealing your 50 quid. Men are usually dressed in their Sunday best, with a swollen belly of bitter on full display and some God awful 70’s haircut. Jim has some banter with each team before the opening round and gets the introductions out of the way. It’s simple and easy to follow but the entertaining aspect of the show is all Jim. He’s a natural presenter and very quick with the contestants. When one team won a whopping £240, Jim pulled a bundle of 20’s from his back pocket and counted out the money like a dodgy bookie, he later quipped that their prize fund was £40 short because he counted it out.
The team with the biggest booty goes on to try and gain the invaluable prizes; they range from a china tea set to a portable colour TV. It’s the star prize gamble that holds the most intrigue. The contestants can gamble all their winnings in the hope of securing the mystery prize. Jim sets up the scenario in his northern drawl ‘You’ve done raiight well to get this far lads, but it’s time to dacaide. Gamble or go home with your prize pot of £230. What’ll it be?’ Most of the men gamble, intent on winning the mystery prize which could be a speed boat or a 1982 Ford. For two lads from Birmingham everyone hopes it’s the speed boat and they win.
“That was the best part of the show, near the end” Jim tells Reyt Gud “When the lads have won a speed boat – a bloody speed boat and both of em’ from Grimsby. I used to watch from a distance and let them argue about it. They would ring their wives but wouldn’t tell em’ what they won. They were more excited to win the bendy bully, more excited by that than a washing machine or speed boat. It was wonderful entertainment watching them, better than the live show.”
Jim Bowen was born on the 20th of August 1937 but he wasn’t born Jim Bowen. “My real name was Peter Williams, but that was a temporary title as I was on the short list for being posted to a new home where my Christian name and surname were to be changed.” Joe and Annie Whittaker were the middle aged couple from Liverpool that were waiting for the postman, so to speak. The couple took the young comedian back to Liverpool one spring morning in 1938. “My first home was in Liverpool. Number 303 Dill Hall Lane, Clayton-le-Moors near Accrington. Of all the kids in that home I was the one drawn out of the hat to go and share Jim and Annie’s life. How lucky can you get ey? Talk about being in the right place at the right time.”
Jim had a normal upbringing and there was nothing particularly special about his upbringing that he thought stardom awaited. “I had a wonderful childhood, couldn’t have asked for anything more but I was a normal lad, and enjoyed football and chasing girls”. When Jim first began to attend school it was a new and exciting experience but soon he grew into a jack of the lads and decided it wasn’t for him. Ironically, he went on to train as a math teacher in Chester College and began working in 1959. “I worked as a math teacher for almost 10 years, 10 years; you get less for murder these days. But it paid well and kept me and Phyllis in shirts and dresses.”
Jim met his wife, Phyllis, in 1959 after finishing in training college and they have been together ever since and raised two children together. “When I met Phyllis she was a few years younger than me so I used that to my advantage to try and impress her but I’ve always taken things in my stride and always said ‘never say what if’, we’d been courting for a while before I asked her to marry me and to my surprise she said yes”. Comedy interested Jim but it wasn’t until he was hitting 30 that he made waves in the northern club scene. “I got booked in some club, forgotten the name now, but I remember getting paid 4 quid and I was earning 12 as a school teacher so after a few months I was earning more performing so I packed in the teaching and earned my living as a full time comedian”.
He began his stand up in working men’s clubs in the north and north east, working 5 nights a week. “It wasn’t like nowadays, I did old fashioned stuff like rip offs and gags, good old town. Back then I looked up to Bernard Manning and Roy Walker, folk today probably have no clue who they are but back then they were the kings of stand up”. In the mid 80’s the club scene was dying but that didn’t matter much to Jim as he had landed the best gig of his life.
Peter Harris, a well known TV comedy director, spotted Jim on stage and offered him a chance to appear on the popular 70’s TV show Catchphrase. After a few performances, Pete suggested Jim try out for a new game show based around darts. It was to be called Bullseye and Jim was going to be the star host but the early days were far from perfect. “The first few shows were awful, really terrible and Pete took me aside and told me straight, ‘Jim, you’re crap’, those first two shows were so bad we couldn’t show them but we stayed at it and soon worked out the creases and well, it went on to be a huge success for us”.
Indeed Bullseye went on to be a massive success in the UK. It ran for over 15 years and was a pioneering force in comedy game shows. “We used to get 10 million viewers, I get credit for the success of the show but I don’t agree. I wasn’t the star, the game was the star we [Peter and Jim] were just the wheels. The catchphrases were created by accident [Now look at what you could have won!]. We had a scriptwriter but he never got a round in so we sacked him. I’ll never reveal his name so don’t ask”.
After the success of Bullseye, Jim didn’t have any regrets nor any plans to stay on TV. “It was excellent, really terrific. I had 22-25 years of TV and I wasn’t going anywhere but there was nothing to do and I wasn’t getting my own chat show so I went and did some radio, it was a well paid job and I got the chance to use my imagination more”. Jim left the industry behind but a young comic from Bolton, who would go on to create Phoenix Nights, was a huge fan of Jims and contacted him in early 2001 to work on his show. “Peter phoned and said he wanted me to read for a part in his show. I went to Blackpool to film my scenes, it was wonderful fun, reminded me of the old days and people still remember my part. It’s humbling. I played Frank Cartwright, a dodgy club owner from Blackpool.” Jim also made a guest appearance in Peter Kay’s rendition of ‘Is This The Way To Amarillo’ but bowed out of the limelight in the late noughties.
Speaking to Reyt Gud from his home in Arkholme for Kirby, Lancashire, Jim was a gentleman and very open to discuss any topics. He recently suffered two strokes but it hasn’t dampened his wit or affable personality. “Well, I’d rather not of had it honestly but what can you do, ey? I’m too old to work but I’m humbled that Bullseye is still so popular. It has been very good to me, I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and we’ve never struggled, never had to worry about money. The royalty checks are handy, means I can buy a new shirt next year.”