Jim Bowen, who has died aged 80, claimed he was the fifth choice to host the long-running TV gameshow Bullseye, but the friendly northern comedian proved to be the perfect fit for the role. After a slow start in 1981, shuttling around the schedules, Bullseye’s unsophisticated mix of darts and trivia attracted early Sunday evening audiences of 17 million. For 14 years, accompanied by the show’s mascot, Bully, Bowen delivered the catchphrases: “Keep out of the black, and in the red; there’s nothing in this game for two in a bed” and “Have a look at what you would have won”.
The ITV show brought its host a Rolls-Royce, a house in the country and enduring fame, thanks in part to a catchphrase – “Super, smashing, great” – that he claimed he never actually said. (Although, when one contestant explained that he was unemployed, Bowen did instinctively reply, “Smashing”.) At his 1980s peak, Bowen earned more than £500,000 a year from Bullseye and his standup bookings.
He was born Peter Williams in Heswall, Cheshire. His mother was unmarried and soon after her son was born put him up for adoption. His adoptive parents, Joe and Annie Whittaker, changed his name to James. He gained a place at Accrington grammar school, but was easily distracted and failed eight of his nine O-levels before becoming a bin man in Burnley.
His headteacher saw that Jim had underperformed and encouraged him to retake his exams. He was keen on amateur dramatics but, after doing his national service in the bomb disposal unit, he opted instead for the security of teaching, completing his studies at the Chester Diocesan Training College (now the University of Chester).
It was seeing Ken Dodd making the audience in a packed Blackpool theatre laugh in the late 1950s that changed everything. He realised the power of standup and started performing under the new name of Bowen, adding a B from his mother’s maiden name, Brown, to the maiden name, Owen, of his wife, Phyllis, whom he had married in 1959. He thought that a shorter name than Whittaker would save time when signing autographs. While he was establishing himself as a standup he continued to teach, and became deputy head of Caton primary school near Lancaster.
In 1970, Bowen was booked to appear at the Dolphin Bar in Cleveleys, near Blackpool. His residency had not been going well, but he hit his stride on the night that Frank Carson was in. Carson recommended him for a new TV series, The Comedians, in which Bowen appeared alongside Mike Reid and Duggie Brown in the 1970s. The quickfire gag show enabled Bowen to concentrate on stage
In 1981 he was asked to present Bullseye. Bowen’s neighbourly approach was a refreshing contrast to the urbane style of hosts such as Bob Monkhouse and Bruce Forsyth. Many viewers took the programme seriously, while others watched ironically, relishing Bowen’s unashamedly old-school patter. He gained a devoted student following and, in 1992, he addressed the Oxford Union.
Jim Bowen with the darts star Jocky Wilson on Bullseye, 1984. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
Bullseye was cancelled in 1995 (although it returned to digital TV a decade later with Dave Spikey as host). In 2002, the comedian Peter Kay, who built a routine out of the fact that council-estate contestants miles from the sea kept winning speedboats on the gameshow, cast Bowen as the bewigged Blackpool club boss Frank “Hoss” Cartwright in his TV series Phoenix Nights. Bowen also appeared in the video for Kay’s 2005 Comic Relief single with Tony Christie, (Is This the Way to) Amarillo?
Bowen had appeared on Last of the Summer Wine, playing a library attendant, in 1992, and had a long-running role as a barman in adverts for Tetley’s bitter, but he also took straight acting gigs, appearing in TV dramas such as Muck and Brass (1982) and Jonathan Creek (1999). He was a jazz fan and for many years he played the trumpet with the Hot Rhythm Orchestra, entertaining guests on the QE2.
From 1999 he presented a BBC Radio Lancashire show, The Happy Daft Farm, from which he resigned in 2002 after using a racist term on air. Bowen apologised immediately for his remarks and then released a 15-certificate DVD of his material, You Can’t Tell These Anymore!
Nevertheless, it continued to give Bowen an enviable lifestyle; he received a generous lump sum when more than 300 old episodes were sold to the comedy channel UK Gold in the late 1990s.
Phyllis survives him, as do their children, Susan and Peter.
• Jim Bowen (James Whittaker), comedian, born 20 August 1937; died 14 March 2018