You can tell a lot about a society by the game shows it popularises. Take I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here – does anything encapsulate the spite prevalent in modern Britain more than a bit part TV actor being goaded into eating a kangaroo dick on national television?
Game shows weren’t always like this. Sure, with the passing of time comes progress; 2018 has brought us really good games consoles and squeezy tubes of mayonnaise. But I really do miss the old game shows. The ones where people were nice to each other. And there was never a game show that illustrates what society has lost better than Bullseye, presented by the late Jim Bowen who passed away at the age of 80 earlier this week.
Strictly speaking, Bullseye never really went away. Old episodes of the iconic darts themed quiz show are estimated to air around the globe around 40 times a week. In the UK they’re broadcast on Challenge, which is the channel you always end up on at 4AM on a Saturday morning, regardless of how many channels you have. At the heart of it all there’s the charismatic Bowen, joined by his rotund cartoon pal Bully, as well as someone who actually knew a bit about darts: the sports commentator Tony Green.
And then there’s the host of contestants, who, as my morose mind is prone to dwelling on in the small hours of the morning, are all now probably dead. Yet thanks to late night re-runs they live forever, vacuum wrapped and protected from the cruelty of the modern age. Of course, because having an original idea is terrifying to people who commission terrestrial TV, the show was briefly rebooted in 2006, with the comedian Dave Spikey taking Jim’s place. But fuck that. Fuck that now and always.
I’ve taken Jim Bowen’s passing, after a succession of strokes in recent years that left the poor bugger struggling to walk and talk, extremely badly. It has left me poignantly sad. People like Jim don’t get on television anymore and I don’t think they ever will again. Bald working class people with jam jar glasses aren’t given primetime game shows to host. Former dustmen-turned-PE teachers aren’t thrust into the national consciousness just because they could tell a few gags. Which is a terrible thing. You can’t even be ugly and get on the radio anymore, such is media’s obsession with aesthetic. And at that expense, empathy and heart is often lost. Bullseye was a show for the common people, starring the common people, hosted by one of their own.
Nobody presented a TV show like Jim did, who even in the 80s (when the show was averaging 17.5 million viewers) looked 80-years-old. Perhaps because he’d come to the game late, after a variety of different careers, he always seemed delighted to be there, more a friend to the contestants than a star the entire show hung around. Perhaps because the game centered around darts, a game plucked from working class pubs and clubs, it fostered the feeling that Jim and the contestants were on the same side in the austerity war.
Watching the reruns, all of which were originally filmed during Tory rule, it’s astonishing to see the conveyor belt of unemployed people line up to take part. Jim always begins his welcome chats by asking where they’re from and if there’s much work in their area. If there isn’t, he wishes them luck, his voice dripping with sincerity. Sometimes he even feeds them the answer within the question he’ll later ask them, just stopping short of personally thrusting the cash in their pockets. In one episode, where a pair of striking miners gamble on the star prize, potentially losing everything but ultimately winning big, Jim celebrates like he’s won the FA Cup. When a contestant doesn’t win, Jim looks heartbroken. Nobody is forced to eat a kangaroo dick.
There’s an episode where a contestant who’s been in an accident resulting in facial injuries is competing. Jim wants to know how he’s been, what his treatment was and wishes him luck for the future, patting him on the shoulder in solidarity. I can’t remember ever seeing anything so kind on television before or since. There’s an episode where he asks the contestant if his boss is a prick (I’m paraphrasing), chuckling with support. Another where he asks if the contestant wants to wave to their newborn grandchild at home. That happens a lot actually. The conversations are always about family, about how the visitors to this surprisingly flimsy studio set-up are getting on in life. Every episode is set up as if designed to give the contestants the best possible day out.
It’s impossible to watch Bullseye in 2018 and not realise that it exists in a forgotten world. I can never forget one episode where the late, great darts player Jockey Wilson (Jim: “The world’s number two, but Scotland’s number one!”) ambles on to throw some arrows for charity, a cigarette hanging from his lips. It can't go unsaid that in later life Jim showed a mindset which belonged to a world we should be thankful is increasingly fading into oblivion – he resigned from his BBC Radio Lancashire job in 1999 for using a racist epithet that there’s no excusing him for. But still, I can’t watch Bullseye – this warm, kind, silly quiz show, where no-one is humiliated, no one is mocked, Jim at the centre of it all, cajoling miners and van drivers and warehouse managers into making a few extra quid– without thinking there’s something about this kind of television and characters like Jim Bowen that really does deserve being preserved.