Once the host of the greatest game show ever made, Jim Bowen has recently made something of a cult comeback thanks to successful performances at the Edinburgh Festival and occasional spots on our TV screens, including his memorable role as Hoss Cartwright in Phoenix Nights. The former teacher and sometimes band member is now releasing a Christmas single, a re-imagining of ‘Walk The Dinosaur’, originally released by Was (Not Was) in 1987.
Mark fulfilled a lifelong dream and spoke to the great man himself…
This single has come off the back of an appearance on Harry Hill’s TV Burp. How did that come about?
One of the show’s previous programmes had showed a clip of TJ [from Emmerdale] doing an impression of me – I think he was saying ‘Super, Smashing, Great’ or something. Harry, who’s a lovely guy, then had the idea of bringing me in on the show to do an impression of TJ in return.
Then I ended up also having to do this bizarre rap version of this song by Was (Not Was) called Walk The Dinosaur. Well, I’d never heard of Was (Not Was) and while I might be a dinosaur myself I’d never heard the song before either. I went on YouTube beforehand to have a look at it and the lyrics and the words are just bizarre – so bizarre that I just thought I had to do it. When you get to my age, nothing’s all that serious anyway so I went ahead.
Anyway, after I did it I was travelling in the car down for one of my performances on the cruise ships and on the way Phyllis [Jim’s wife] mentioned that a record producer she was sitting near in the audience had said to her this would make a fun single. Plus, there was a cheque involved too, which gave me a bit more encouragement!
How long did it take to record?
We recorded it all in a day. I’ve got a sense of rhythm and I can hold a line so we did all three versions of the song in a day.
Yes. There’s the normal version, one with me rapping and then an acid jazz version that will all be on the CD. There’s an amazing female backing singer on there and a marvellous trumpet player too. He’s very good. I’m not bothered if it does anything or not to be honest. It’s just a bit of fun and hopefully people who buy it will have a good chuckle. Oh, and the CD’s got a hilarious cover too of me with this dinosaur.
Did you enjoy it then?
Oh yes. It’s not exactly Elgar, that’s for sure. More my geriatric attempt at keeping up with things.
You mentioned you rap on one of the versions of the song. That’s not the first time you’ve rapped on a record is it? Do you remember recording the Jim Bowen Rap back in 1991?
I do yes. That was years and years ago. That was a bad rap then but having done this one now 16 years later, in a slightly bemused way I’m rather chuffed with this – the words are very good. That first rap single was part of bizarre arrangement. I didn’t know much about it to be honest; I was just taken into a studio and told to do it. I don’t even think I got paid for it actually. Still, I got free accommodation though.
Well that’s something. Watching you on TV Burp, the crowd reaction you got was huge. Does it still surprise you the strength of positive reaction you get all these years on from doing Bullseye?
Absolutely. It would be arrogant of me to assume that people will still have great affection for a game show that came off TV some 13 years ago. Even today it’s still tickling people’s fancy thanks to Challenge TV buying all 300-plus of the shows and repeating them for fun. I think younger viewers like students love the naivety of it, plus there’s a nostalgia factor of remembering sitting on Nana’s knee at 4 or 5 o’clock watching someone throwing darts and Bully walking across the screen. It tugs at old memories.
Back to the single, this isn’t your first foray into music is it? You were a regular performer on the QE2 for many years with the Hot Rhythm Orchestra – singing and playing the trumpet as well telling jokes in between songs I believe?
I was with the band for 15 years on there. They’re a very good self-contained band in their own right but I went along and sang with them and played the trumpet, as well as compeering for them and telling some cheeky gags in between numbers. They were cheeky, but not too cheeky or else someone would tell the caption. Mind you, I don’t consider myself to be a blue comic anyway. Just cheeky.
We played twice nightly, every night on that ship and we packed the pub [the Golden Lion Pub on board the ship] out every time.
You must have a lot of memories from your times on the QE2. How do you feel about it being laid to rest?
I’ve been very sad about it this last week actually. It’s been sad watching her go but times move on.
It’s like when people ask me what I think of today’s comics – times move on, you know? The younger ones aren’t necessarily my cup of tea – I’m not comfortable with people like Russell Brand for example. But I think that’s just my generation really. When I was up for the Edinburgh festival this year with my wife, we had to walk out of a few of the acts as we were embarrassed by their humour.
When did you first realise you could make a career out of making people laugh?
I used to be a teacher but I always say I came out of teaching when they stopped us from being able to nail the buggers to the desk!
Seriously though, it became obvious to me that teaching was going to become increasingly difficult. You could see that the way things were going, teachers were going to end up having less and less power and support so I decided to pursue comedy instead. Plus there was the financial side of things. You could get 15 quid a week for being a teacher at the time, or you could earn 10 quid a night as a comic – 30 quid a night from TV shows. Then the Comedians came along in the 70s and I was just lucky enough that out of the 400 or so who applied I was successful.
Like the title of my autobiography says, Right Place, Right Time.
I’ve read your autobiography and it sounds like you always had something of a passion for music. Why did you pursue comedy rather than music?
It was an economic decision really. In the clubs, you could get more money as a comic rather than a musician.
Is this single your chance to recapture your music loving days then?
Absolutely! I’m not sure how long it will last though.
You’re very self-effacing in many interviews and even in your autobiography, stating that luck has had a large part to play in your life. Why is that?
While I know I’ve got some talent, for me to go out there and be arrogant about that is ungrateful to fans and followers. To dismiss your fans as anything other than valuable is awful. I fully appreciate what I have.
Other than the single, what projects are you working on at the moment?
With the single done and sitting with the technicians, I’m finished with that. I’m still working on the ships and I do Warner hotels too, and I’ve gone back to playing trumpet with the Hot Rhythm Orchestra so we still do the cruise ships too.
Finally, which was better. Being the star of This Is Your Life or winning The Weakest Link – twice?
Oh, that’s tight. This Is Your Life was really nice. I think they were running out of celebrities to cover and Eamonn [Andrews] picked me as it gave him the opportunity to drive the Flying Scotsman up to my house [Jim lived in an old Victorian railway station at the time]. I’m proud of that, not because I’d achieved anything great or anything but just because I was chosen.
As for The Weakest Link, I’ve done that four times now and managed to survive Ms Robinson, who’s actually a love.
That Willie Thorne though. He and Phil Taylor, the darts player, voted me off when they were playing as I’d already won it twice before and word gets around – the sods! I’m not speaking to them again. In fact Willie gave an after dinner speech at a sportsman’s dinner I was at recently and I refused to introduce him. He’s a lovely guy though really.
Any last words on the single?
Do what you can to help an old man!
Jim Bowen, thank you very much.