News, Culture & Society

Bullseye host and comedian Jim Bowen dies aged 80

Broadcaster and comedian Jim Bowen has died aged 80, his wife confirmed today.  

Bowen, who was best known as the host of darts-based game show Bullseye in the 1980s and 1990s, began his career as a stand-up comedian in the 1960s.

The Lancashire-born former deputy headmaster and Morecambe FC fan rose to fame presenting the ITV programme for 14 years between 1981 and 1995. 

Lancashire-born game show host Jim Bowen, pictured on Bullseye in 1993, has died aged 80

Bowen also acted in a variety of TV shows, including Muck and Brass, Jonathan Creek, The Grimleys and as Hoss Cartwright in Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. 

He was known for his catchphrases on Bullseye including ‘Let’s have a look at what you could have won’, ‘super, smashing, great’ and ‘all for the throw of a dart’. 

Fan Jack Collins tweeted: ”Stand on the oche and listen to Tony’. ‘Nothing in this game for two in a bed’. Jim Bowen. From PE teacher to TV Legend. RIP Jim.’ 

In 2011, Bowen, also known as Alf in the Tetley Bitter adverts, said he had learned to ‘appreciate all the things in life’ after suffering two strokes. 

Bowen, pictured with Bullseye mascot Bully in 1989, rose to fame presenting the ITV show

Bowen, pictured with Bullseye mascot Bully in 1989, rose to fame presenting the ITV show

Today, family friend John Pleus said Bowen died this morning with his wife Phyllis by his side. He added: ‘He passed away very peacefully, she was with him.

‘We are all shedding a tear. I’ve known him since the Bullseye days. It wasn’t completely unexpected, he’s been ill for several weeks in hospital.

‘The Royal Lancaster Infirmary were wonderful, we couldn’t have asked for better. As with people getting on, Jim has had several strokes, one in 2011. 

‘Strokes just make you weaker and more susceptible to infections but we don’t know what the cause of death will be.’

Tributes flooded in for Bowen on social media today, including from former darts world champion Eric Bristow, who said: ‘RIP Jim Bowen.

‘I done every year of Bullseye and ten Xmas shows and had 15 days with him on the QE2. I played Darts in the afternoon and he played with his band at night. We had some late nights, ha ha. Great memories. #RIPJimBowen.’

His fellow former darts player Bobby George tweeted: ‘RIP Jim Bowen! Thank you mate for the great #bullseye days we had so much fun. Super Magic Great!’

Bowen’s fellow comedian Jim Davidson simply tweeted: ‘RIP Jim Bowen. Great guy.’

Bowen is pictured on the set of the programme in 1985 with Bully's star prize of a speedboat

Bowen is pictured on the set of the programme in 1985 with Bully’s star prize of a speedboat

And boxer Frank Bruno added: ‘Great comic. We worked together many times, had a lot of laughs together. Jim and Ken Dodd, sad time for the entertainment industry.’

Keith Deller said: ‘So sad to hear the news of my friend Jim Bowen who passed away. I was very fortunate to go on Bullseye many times. 

‘It was great to be one of Jim’s guests on his This Is Your Life. He always made you very welcomed and he made Bullseye the great show it was. RIP Jim.’

And Kevin Painter tweeted: ‘Thanks for the memories Jim… even managed to grab a Bendy Bully from my time there. Super, smashing, great.’ 

Bowen, on Des O'Connor Tonight in 1987, used to enjoy three or four pints a night at a local pub

Bowen, on Des O’Connor Tonight in 1987, used to enjoy three or four pints a night at a local pub

In August 2015, Bowen said he feared he would never work again after suffering his third debilitating stroke, leaving him struggling to walk or even talk.

He said at the time: ‘I’m still here. And I have had a good life. I’m struggling with my speech now and I am walking with a stick. But the people I meet are very caring.’

Bowen, who often enjoyed three or four pints a night at his local village pub in the Lune Valley, had been battling with his health after his first stroke seven years ago.

Until that day in February 2011, he was in good health and was kept busy with cruise liner appearances and corporate after-dinner speeches.

Bowen, pictured with his wife Phyllis and daughter Susan at London Gatwick Airport in 1989

Bowen, pictured with his wife Phyllis and daughter Susan at London Gatwick Airport in 1989

Bowen had emphysema from his former 80-cigarettes-a-day habit, which he quit in 1973. But the strokes robbed him of much of his independence.

Jim Bowen’s best loved Bullseye catchphrases

  • ‘You can’t beat a bit of Bully!’ 
  • ‘Stay out of the black and into the red, Nothing in this game for two in a bed.’ 
  • ‘Let’s have a look at what you could have won.’ 
  • ‘Now the cash you won for charity earlier… that’s safe.’ 
  • ‘Super, smashing, great.’ 
  • ‘You win nothing but your BFH… Bus Fare Home’ 
  • ‘I’ve got £100 here and it’ll take me two minutes to count out.’
  • ‘All for the throw of a dart’ 
  • ‘You’ve got the time it takes for the board to revolve…’ (to decide if the contestants were going to gamble their prizes) 
  • ‘Up to the oche – and listen to Tony!’ (a reference to show co-host Tony Green)

In 2012, Bowen had begun to overcome some of the after-effects of his stroke and went back on the road with his one-man show; You Can’t Beat A Bit Of Bully.

Bowen made his name on ITV’s The Comedians before presenting Bullseye, a mix of darts and a pub quiz show, which ran from 1981 to 1995.

It can still be seen on daily repeats on Challenge TV and remains popular for its retro feel and notoriously naff prices.

In the Eighties, Jim was famous enough to be lampooned on Spitting Image with his famous catchphrase: ‘Super. Smashing. Great.’ 

Terry Wogan once calculated 41 utterances of ‘smashing’ in a 25-minute show.

Other catchphrases from the show included: ‘You can’t beat a bit of Bully’ — a reference to the game’s mascot, a bull in a dart player’s shirt.

Then there was ‘BFH’ — bus fare home, which was all people would get if they didn’t win.

The prizes were celebrated for being inappropriate — a couple from a tower block in Walsall won a speedboat — or undesirable — an alarm clock for every room.

Bowen once admitted that getting the Bullseye job was ’90 per cent luck’.

What was Bullseye?

Darts based quiz show Bullseye first aired on ITV in 1981, and ran for 14 years until 1995.

It was presented by Jim Bowen, and co-hosted by commentator Tony Green.  

Its mascot was named Bully – a bull in a red and white shirt and blue trousers.

Watched by 17million viewers, it involved three pairs of contestants to win prizes on the throw of the dart.

Players competed for Bully’s star prize, which could be a new car, a speedboat, a caravan, or a luxury holiday. 

Bullseye was revived for a new series in 2006, for Challenge. It ran for 30 episodes and was hosted by comedian Dave Spikey.

He has also previously said: ‘I always said the game was the star. It was downmarket, but accessible. Joe Public could identify with my fallibilities.

‘Game shows today are too high-tech with a £1 million prize. The nice thing about us was they were excited if they won a toaster. But that was 31 years ago when not every household had a toaster. People lose sight of that.’

Before Bullseye, Bowen trained as a PE teacher – where he met his wife Phyllis.

He later became a deputy headmaster before giving it up to become a comedian on the northern club circuit.

Born on the Wirral to an unmarried mother, he was adopted as a baby and brought up in Accrington by Joe, a brickworker, and Annie, a weaver in a mill.

He was named after his father’s friend, who died in the First World War. He went onto have his own children, Pete and daughter Susan, who are both grown up.

He was first appeared on our screens, in Granada TV stand-up show, The Comedians, alongside Bernard Manning, Stan Boardman and Mike Reid. 

Bowen is pictured with his wife Phyllis

Bowen is pictured supporting his beloved Morecambe FC

Bowen is pictured with his wife Phyllis (left) and supporting Morecambe FC in 2001 (right)

He was hugely popular with audiences and, a decade later, was asked to host a new darts-based game show.

Bowen always admitted his failings as a slick show host was the key to Bulleye’s success.

‘I was so poor at the game show game,’ he says. ‘I’d say: ‘What do you do for a living?’ They’d reply: ‘I’ve been unemployed for two years.’ And I’d say: ‘Smashing!’ It was just a word to give me a chance to think.’ 

In 1997, he was given a hero’s welcome at the Oxford Union when it drew 1,200 people – the biggest crowd for four years – and they chanted ‘Jim, Jim, Jim’ while stamping on the floor.

When the shouting ended, Bowen began: ‘Mr President, distinguished audience, thank you for that. But may I say I do feel you’re taking the p*** a bit.’

Ant and Dec hosted a one-off Bullseye special in 2005 and it returned for one series the following year on TV channel Challenge with Dave Spikey hosting. 

The game involved pairs of contestants – a darts player and a non-darts player – using their darts and quiz skills to compete for rewards.

Up for grabs in each episode was Bully’s Special Prize, often a more luxurious reward such as a car.

Just last month it was claimed that Channel 5 was considering a revival of the legendary game show after the success of their reworked Blind Date.

Footage from Bullseye was once famously used against serial killer John Cooper, who had appeared as a contestant in May 1989, when his face on the programme was compared with a sketch of a suspect in a murder. 

Challenge TV said it will be broadcasting the Bullseye documentary You Can’t Beat A Bit Of Bully from 9pm tonight, before a 24-hour marathon of the show on Saturday. 

How northern comic Jim Bowen became a TV favourite  

Jim Bowen was a genial stand-up comedian and TV personality who for 14 years hosted the hugely popular ITV game show Bullseye.

The schoolmaster-turned-entertainer attracted large television audiences with his North country humour, his cheery disposition and his infectious catchphrases in a show which ran virtually non-stop from 1981 to 1995.

Bowen was born Peter Williams in Heswall, Cheshire, on August 20, 1937. He was educated at Accrington Grammar School and Chester Diocesan Training College. He became a teacher at schools in Lancashire and subsequently deputy headmaster of Caton Primary School near Lancaster.

Bowen, pictured in 1985, was the host of darts-based game show Bullseye in the 1980s and 90s

Bowen, pictured in 1985, was the host of darts-based game show Bullseye in the 1980s and 90s

While teaching, he became involved with the local dramatic society which kindled his interest in showbusiness. In the 1960s, he worked part-time as a stand-up comedian on the northern club circuit.

The advent of Granada TV’s The Comedians gave him the opportunity to appear on national TV, which helped persuade him to become a full-time entertainer.

Television opportunities followed and he appeared in Granada’s The Wheeltappers And Shunters Social Club as well as Thames Television’s late-night chat show Take Two.

In 1981, Bowen was appointed presenter of Bullseye, which mixed general knowledge questions with darts. The show quickly became a popular feature of ITV’s schedules early on Sunday evenings, and ran for 14 years.

Several of the catchphrases he used on the programme became well-known. He would warn contestants that if they gambled and lost, all they would receive was their ‘BFH’ (bus fare home).

‘Nothing for two in a bed’ referred to how contestants would win a prize by hitting the appropriate part of the dartboard, but would lose the prize if they hit it twice. His most popular phrase was ‘super, smashing, great’.

In 1981, Bowen was appointed presenter of Bullseye, which mixed general knowledge questions with darts

In 1981, Bowen was appointed presenter of Bullseye, which mixed general knowledge questions with darts

Bowen has also appeared in TV dramas and comedies. He played a crooked accountant in ITV’s 1982 drama Muck and Brass, and later guest starred in BBC1’s Jonathan Creek and Channel 4’s Phoenix Nights.

In 1999, Bowen began presenting on BBC Radio Lancashire, but after working there for three years, resigned after referring to a guest on his show as a ‘nig-nog’. He admitted that, even though he apologised for the remark almost immediately, he believed his showbusiness career was over.

But he returned to the limelight in 2005, when he performed a solo show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe about Bullseye, called You Can’t Beat A Bit Of Bully.

He returned to Edinburgh in the summer of 2006, performing at Jongleurs.

In February, 2011 he suffered two mild strokes.

Bowen died at the age of 80 on March 14. He is survived by wife Phyllis and two children.