Once the usual end-of-year television programmes and news articles start to look back on 2018, there probably won’t be much time and space devoted to the late Jim Bowen, who died on 14th March this year. The Bullseye presenter’s death, at the grand old age of 80, went largely unnoticed by the wider world, but it’s easy to forget that Bowen was one of the biggest television stars of the 1980s.
Bowen was not strictly what you would call a Manchester lad, of course. He was born in Heswall, around 50 miles from Manchester, later moving to the town of Accrington, located about 20 miles to the north. Above all though, Bowen was associated with being ‘northern’, part of the great generation of entertainers and comedians, like Ken Dodd, who, while finding success, never stop ‘wearing’ their local area with pride.
17 million viewers watched Bullseye at its peak
Of course, Bowen is synonymous with the 1980s quiz show Bullseye. At its peak, it was pulling in up to 17 million viewers on ITV. Television has changed since then, but to put it into perspective, those viewing figures exceed last week’s much-feted I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here Live Final by about seven million. Put simply, Bowen and Bullseye were a huge deal.
The show finished its run in 1995 and, to be fair, viewing figures had dropped considerably and Bowen’s career was on the wane. Bowen popped up here and there, presenting a show on BBC Radio Lancashire, but by and large he was seen as both finished and unfashionable.
However. at the dawn of the new millennium, Bowen’s career was revived by an unlikely hero – comedian Peter Kay. The Car Share star, who was born in Farnworth, Greater Manchester, cast Bowen in the second series of his hit comedy Phoenix Nights. It was just a small role, but it cast Bowen in a positive light. Kay would also use Bowen for the video of his Comic Relief (mimed) song, Is This the Way to Amarillo?
Kay and Bowen were perfect bedfellows
Indeed, it’s no surprise that Kay chose to work with Bowen. His whole act is infused with the idea of nostalgia for the past, specifically the northern culture that accompanied Kay’s formative years. Kay has a knack for simultaneously ridiculing and respecting these cultural oddities, and nothing was more perfect for Kay’s comedy routines than Bullseye.
It’s hard to gauge if Kay resurrected interest in the show itself. It never truly went off the air in UK television, as it could often be found on TV channel Challenge. In fact, it is still playing on that channel and still gets some prominent billing. However, in his stand-up routines and perhaps indirectly in Phoenix Nights, Kay was able to foster a sense of reminiscence in his audiences, his gentle ribbing causing a sense of curiosity for these relics of a seemingly out-dated past.
Bullseye merchandise and games still popular
Today, interest in Bullseye is still incredibly strong. Bullseye merchandise sells frequently on sites like eBay and, if you get your hands on any, the original “Bully’ dolls that were given out on the show to the contestants are said to sell for a fortune. Even a Bullseye video slot is available, with Microgaming’s Bullseye a popular choice among the wide variety of casino games at Betway Casino.
In fact, Bowen became a bit of a cult here after Peter Kay’s intervention, and his face adorns t-shirts and other bits of tat that can be bought on the internet. The presenter wasn’t immune from causing controversy and perhaps, to put it mildly, should be regarded as a man ‘of his time’ in terms of his
views, but by and large Bowen is remembered fondly, especially by the people of the north-west where he lived his entire life.
Will the Bullseye legacy live on? Rumour seems to be that there will be a rebooted show, with Channel 5 mooted as a possible candidate to broadcast it. Several presenters have been rumoured to host the show, including Bradley Walsh and Vernon Kay. Whether they can recapture the old magic remains to be seen. Regardless, Bullseye will take its place as one of the most beloved shows in British television history.