Edinburgh Fringe 2015
Bob Monkhouse is truly an enigma, and a lot of that is bizarrely because of how honest he appeared to be with us while at the same time appearing permanently perma-tanned and careful with his secrets. A man who was voted the most loved TV personality in the same year that he was voted the most hated, he was dismissed (before a late career ascendance) as a somewhat insincere gameshow host.
For those of us who discovered Bob in his gameshow zenith, it can be somewhat startling to discover what a quick-witted, charming and downright sexy man he was in his youth. He modelled himself on Bob Hope, a style that he did not move far from for the rest of his career. It meant that a lot of his onstage and onscreen persona was very carefully calculated and modulated – for some critics, insincerely so – and he was one of the first faces on British TV to appear with startling regularity, calling audiences his ‘friends’.
Smartly, the play starts just in the middle of one of Bob’s most famous jokes, throwing it away so we can get on with the real story. There is largely no narrative here, aside from a broken-tooth gap created by Bob’s famously missing joke books. Recognising that a ‘warts and all’ biography is going to be somewhat long (Bob’s army career, and how he managed to cheek himself an audition with the BBC, could fill an hour just by itself), we are treated to sixty minutes in Bob’s company. And from the very first gag, we truly are in his company: Simon Cartwright delivers significantly more than a mere impersonation.
By some degree, one of the most fascinating aspects of Monkhouse’s life is his relationship with one time writing partner Denis Goodwin who, while having talent all of his own, suffered simply from sharing an office with Monkhouse – generally regarded as being the smart one, the sexy one, the one with the talent. We really only have Monkhouse’s own take on this to go on, although it’s true that surviving footage (in programmes like My Pal Bob) seem to largely support this. Although it’s also clear that in modern parlance, Bob would be at least accused of being something of a control freak in the pursuit of a good gag. One of the most telling touches in this play is the depiction of the writer’s burden: constantly having to break off from conversation in order to write down a newly minted gag in a notebook before it’s forgotten.
The Man Called Monkhouse borrows liberally from interviews, the autobiography Crying With Laughter, and Bob’s own joke books. While this is no ‘dark side’ expose of yet another classic-era British comic, it is at times uncomfortably honest. Bob, expertly performed by Cartwright, is skilled at a spectacular lack of self-awareness. An intensely private man, upset at the loss of his joke books, thinks nothing of sneaking a look at Denis’ own notebook of gags. At the same time, he finds it impossible to speak for too long about a deceased friend without making the conversation all about himself. He tells us of his perversely analytical self – a nagging sense of guilt that he simply doesn’t feel all that guilty. He’s a man who claims it difficult to keep in touch with his emotions while constantly ridden with ulcers and migraines that hint at his more reflective self.
Simon Cartwright surpasses imitation. Every carefully judged raised eyebrow, the carefully judged half-cough that delays delivery of a saucier gag is there. When you consider how tightly controlled Monkhouse’s stage ‘clown’ was, it’s all the more remarkable that the performance we see here is so three dimensional, so true. Ultimately, it earns and justifies the title The Man Called Monkhouse.