Simon Hoggart

Facts and fantasy

The Unforgettable Bob Monkhouse (ITV1) might be thought a slightly coat-trailing title, though not perhaps as much as its follow-up, The Unforgettable Jeremy Beadle.

Facts and fantasy
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The Unforgettable Bob Monkhouse (ITV1) might be thought a slightly coat-trailing title, though not perhaps as much as its follow-up, The Unforgettable Jeremy Beadle. Still, I don’t suppose we’ll ever be treated to the unforgettable Jim Davidson. Or the all-too-forgettable Freddie Starr, or Whoever Remembers Bobby Davro?

Monkhouse had this highly veneered gloss, and symbolised for a lot of people all that was wrong with commercial television. Smooth, unfazed, just condescending enough to the public to make your teeth feel furry. If you can fake insincerity, you can fake anything. Privately, he had a pretty miserable time, losing one son to cystic fibrosis, another — already estranged — to drugs. Even his writing partner, Denis Goodwin, committed suicide. Monkhouse was diffident to an almost embarrassing degree, though he attracted great loyalty. The late Alan Coren, who was a good hater when the occasion demanded, liked him a lot, though felt he had to apologise for the fact.

With Coren, there was no gap between the public and private face. He was the same over lunch as he was on television. The opposite was true of Monkhouse. For example, his public persona demanded that he wrote all his own jokes, and logged them in neatly multicoloured entries in his bound joke books. But when he appeared on Have I Got News For You, when his gags, poise and charm won him many younger fans, he turned up with a team of joke-writers. My brother Paul reported this in the Times and received a courteous letter denying it — all his jokes were his own, Monkhouse said. Paul made further inquiries and confirmed that the story was true. So why had he bothered to pretend the opposite? Were his powers failing, but he couldn’t bring himself to admit it?

That show came not long after Monkhouse’s joke books were stolen, in slightly strange circumstances but a storm of publicity. ‘Did you steal my joke books?’ he asked Paul Merton.

‘Yes, I was done for receiving stolen goods,’ said Merton, with some ambiguity, but not much.

There is the oddity of Monkhouse’s most famous joke, of which there were slight variants: ‘When it’s my time to go, I want to die like my father, peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming in terror, like his passengers.’

A terrific gag, though soon after he started using it, I heard it on an old Garrison Keillor Lake Wobegon tape from around ten years before. Hmmm. But with Monkhouse, reality and fantasy were interchangeable, to be deployed as necessary.

Simon Amstell, the curly-haired former presenter of Never Mind the Buzzcocks, is also the co-writer of Grandma’s House (BBC2), which largely takes place on sitting-room sofas, and is a sort of Jewish Royle Family. Rebecca Front plays Amstell’s mother, about to marry Clive, a cheeky chappie rather like Bob Monkhouse. Most of the time the show consists of the family chuntering at each other, which can work brilliantly well, as it did with the Royles. Lines like ‘Don’t listen to him, he’s a vegetarian’ do emerge organically from the conversation. But they’ll have to get rid of the clunkier lines, the ones that must have sounded brilliant in the writing, and fall like a cowpat when spoken. Mum wants to get an HD television: ‘You can see every hair in Noel Edmonds’s beard — what more do you want from life?’ Fewer jokes like that, please. But the show has promise and may be worth persisting with.

The other new sitcom is Dawn French’s Roger and Val Have Just Got In (BBC2). Gosh, it’s slow. Maybe it will grow on me. But then if I stand in the garden long enough, the ground elder will grow on me, too.

Sherlock (BBC1) has been hugely praised and hugely denigrated. I liked the zip and the wit, the way that Holmes uses Google in the same way that the original used the agony columns, the cunning use of the homeless as the new Baker Street Irregulars. Though the nods to the past don’t always work. In this episode the Bruce-Partington Plans referred to a missile defence system. Sounds unlikely.

US Defense Secretary: Mr Fox, we are prepared to share with you the technology from our Strategic Defense Initiative.

Liam Fox: No need, my dear fellow, we have the Bruce-Partington missile!

And it was a surprise that ‘Jim’ Moriarty should turn out to be a camp Irish character actor, perhaps set to replace Graham Norton for a darker, edgier Eurovision Song Contest. What is certain is that the success of the series will set all the new clichés for the 2010s — high-speed action, large chunks of the plot left out or unexplained, lack of detail juxtaposed with too much detail, the detective as a high-functioning autistic.