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Last Updated: Friday, 19 March, 2004, 14:33 GMT
Bob Monkhouse's last laugh
By Ian Youngs
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Comedian and TV host Bob Monkhouse, who died in December, was remembered with a Bafta tribute show on BBC One on Sunday.

Monkhouse with co-stars Tony Hawks (left) and Neil Gibbs
Monkhouse with co-stars Tony Hawks (left) and Neil Gibbs
When Monkhouse filmed his last acting role - in sitcom pilot Satsuma and Pumpkin in August 2003 - there was little sign of the cancer that would kill him four months later.

The only indication that he was ill or had been having treatment was the weight he had put on, according to the show's writer and director Jeremy Engler.

"I think he had been ill, but I actually kind of thought he was cured," Mr Engler told BBC News Online.

"That's a horrible thing to say - but he looked so well that I didn't really give it a thought."

And Monkhouse was still very "quick on the ball", according to his co-star, newcomer Neil Gibbs - and even joked about his illness.

He said something about seeing Marilyn Monroe on the toilet and Frank Sinatra threw a punch at him
Jeremy Engler
Writer and director
"It was a joke about going to the doctor and finding out you were terminally ill. Everyone in the room just looked as if to say 'he really isn't worried about talking about it'. It was quite bizarre," he said.

Drunken mathmatician

Satsuma and Pumpkin is a period comedy about three hapless World War II code-breakers in the same mould as 'Allo 'Allo and Dad's Army, according to Mr Engler.

Monkhouse had agreed to play drunken Czech mathematician Ernst two years earlier after Mr Engler sent him a script.

A special effects technician on films like James Bond and stand-up comedian, Mr Engler wanted to know if his script was any good - but did not expect to hear much from the star.

A month later, however, an e-mail turned up saying: "I love your treatment and script for S&P.

Monkhouse's cartoons on his script
Monkhouse drew cartoons on his script during the two-day shoot
"It has great humour and performance potential plus an intriguing background and period setting. It would be a privilege to play Ernst!"

'Injection of life'

Monkhouse's reply "gave the thing a massive boost, a massive injection of life", Mr Engler said.

"Bob's e-mail said he would be interested in appearing in the thing - which was what I wasn't expecting."

That was in the summer of 2001, just before he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and just after his son Simon was found dead in Thailand.

But despite his illness, Monkhouse was determined to keep his promise when Mr Engler came to film the pilot in August 2003.

Thanks to Monkhouse's support, Mr Engler got comic Tony Hawks on board to fill another role and secured Bletchley Park - where the real World War II code-breaking took place - as a location.

Bob Monkhouse
The actor grew stubble for the part of a drunken mathematician
"I didn't even really know if he was going to turn up on the first day because all I had was a phone message from him saying 'Bob Monkhouse here, I'm sorry darling, what part is it I'm supposed to do?'," Mr Engler said.

"I thought 'my God, this isn't good, it's two days before the filming'."

But he did turn up, complete with his own costume - including a 1,000 jacket that he smeared with chalk because his character leant on the blackboard the whole time.

"It was a great victory to have him turn up. He was very easy to get on with," Mr Engler said.

Anecdotes

He regaled the cast and crew with anecdotes from his long career - but did not come across as arrogant, according to Mr Engler.

Monkhouse's cartoons on his script
Monkhouse began his career selling cartoons in his teens
"I wanted to hurry everyone along and get it all shot, and you felt awful interrupting a story," he said.

"Once he said 'I remember once I used to go out with Sammy Davis Jr and Lionel Blair.' But he seemed very discreet - he said something about seeing Marilyn Monroe on the toilet and Frank Sinatra threw a punch at him."

The pilot is now being offered to broadcasters and there have been offers to release Monkhouse's last acting role on video.

"Recently, he had not done many straight roles or comedy roles other than talk show and game show stuff," Mr Engler said.

"I actually feel pretty sad about that - I feel that we missed out."




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