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Jim Bowen: It’s a Bullseye!

You didn't have to be a darts fan to enjoy the 1980s television show, Bullseye, hosted by comedian Jim Bowen. The show invited competitors to win prizes, depending on their darts skills, but it was Bowen's witty banter rather than the darts play that attracted audiences of 20 million viewers each week in its heyday.

The show ran for an amazing 15 series, from 1981 until 1995. Bowen made it his own with his trademark catchphrases, including the simple but effective, "Super, smashing, great!"

Almost as famous as the host was Bullseye's animated mascot, Bully - a brown bull resplendent in a red and white striped shirt, who spawned his own range of darts shirts and cuddly toys.

Jim Bowen

Early career

Born in the Wirral, Cheshire, in August 1937, Bowen came from a modest family background. His father was a bricklayer and his mother a weaver. He attended Accrington Grammar School but passed only one O-level. He began working as a refuse collector with Nelson District Council on leaving school.

Following his National Service between 1955 and 1957, he attended Chester Diocesan Training College and later he became deputy headteacher of Caton Primary School. At the same time, he became involved in amateur dramatics - the start of his interest in show business.

As a stand-up comedian in the early 1960s on the northern club circuit, he worked as a teacher by day and as a comic by night. Eventually, he became a full-time comedian, appearing on Granada TV's The Comedians to establish his career. He also had acting roles in Last of the Summer Wine and the 1982 ITV drama, Muck and Brass.

 

Bullseye launch

A stint on Granada Television's variety show, The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, assured his place as a stand-up comedian. He was soon offered a new role presenting the new game show, Bullseye, for the ATV network in 1981. The show was created by Andrew Wood and comedian Norman Vaughan.

Three pairs of contestants competed against each other to win an array of prizes, ranging from a new car or a luxury holiday to the consolation prizes of a commemorative tankard, a set of darts or a bendy "Bully" toy. One contestant answered general knowledge questions and their partner played darts.

Initially, the show was broadcast on a Monday night, but it was so popular it was moved to a Sunday slot. A new co-host, professional darts referee Tony Green, joined the show to keep the scores and it attracted 17 million viewers in its first season.

 

Show highlights

In 1982, Bullseye was taken over by Central and its popularity continued to grow, eventually moving to the primetime Saturday afternoon TV slot. Bowen's wit and down-to-earth presenting style put contestants at their ease and turned it into a hybrid comedy show, game show and darts match all rolled into one.

Perhaps the worst moment was when the finalists were on track to win the big prizes and then their darts skills let them down. The show's format was such that Bowen would commiserate with them for losing – and he would then say chirpily, "Ah well - look at what you would've won!"

Then, the top prize would be wheeled out and the contestants' dismay was caught on camera for all to see, as they watched a video of an exotic holiday abroad, or saw a shiny new car driven out from behind the scenes.

 

Bowen's catchphrases

Bowen developed his own presenting style, littered with his famous catchphrases that the audience knew and loved. Apart from his oft-said, "Super, smashing, great", he had a series of other phrases that most of the audience could recite.

Perhaps most famous was the phrase he used when advising the players about the layout of the board - Bowen always said, "Stay out of the black and into the red, nothing in this game for two in a bed!"

This referred to the fact the players had to hit the red areas of the special Bullseye darts board, and that they also couldn't have two darts in the same slot, or they didn't count. He also referred to the contestants as "throwers and knowers" - meaning the darts player and the team member answering the questions.

 

End of an era

Bowen's humour often saved the day when the non-player had a disaster on the darts board and ruined the good work already done by the player! He kept chatting in his friendly style and ensured the show ran smoothly, despite mishaps.

Bullseye retained its high TV ratings for 14 years because it kept pace with the times, keeping to the same basic, popular format that was occasionally tweaked slightly to maintain its fresh appeal, with new sets and title sequences introduced over the years.

The show finally came to an end after the 15th series, when the producers declined to make a 16th series, saying new conditions demanded by the network weren't in the show's best interests. However, repeats have been shown on TV continually for the past 23 years, attracting audiences of more than 19.8 million viewers on Sky's Challenge channel.

 

Life after Bullseye

Bowen pursued his acting career after Bullseye came to an end, appearing in Jonathan Creek and as bouncer Frank Cartwright in Channel 4's Phoenix Nights. In later life, he became a radio presenter on BBC Radio Lancashire and Indigo FM in Cumbria, performed on cruise liners and became a celebrated after-dinner speaker.

At the age of 80, Bowen died on 14th March this year, after suffering a third stroke. Show business pals and fans paid tribute to the enduring entertainer who had been in the entertainment industry for almost six decades.

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