Saturday 3 December 2022

Bob Monkhouse: The Flip Side (Thirty Minute Theatre)

It's hard to believe that next year marks the twentieth anniversary of Bob Monkhouse's death. For decade upon decade, he was a resolute fixture in the schedules, and it almost feels as if he's still with us. In fact, if he popped up fronting a new quiz show tomorrow, no one would bat an eyelid. Such was his engaging warmth and expertly honed wit, it's far from hyperbole to describe him as a legend of British television. Oddly, he's never featured on Curious British Telly, but today that changes as I look at The Flip Side.

The Flip Side was part of BBC2's long running anthology series Thirty-Minute Theatre (1965 - 1973) and, for many years, was considered a victim of the BBC's infamous junking policy. However, it eventually emerged as a telerecording from Bob Monkhouse's vast personal archive of television recordings. Having mostly known Monkhouse from his game show appearances - look, I wasn't born until the early 1980s - I was intrigued as to what old Bob would be like in an acting role, particularly a dramatic one. Luckily, the BFI hold a viewing copy of The Flip Side so I headed down there pronto.

Written by M. Charles Cohen - a prolific Canadian scriptwriter who would later go on to write for Roots - The Flip Side spends half an hour in the life of Jerry Janus (Bob Monkhouse), a disc-jockey broadcasting in the late night schedules of Canadian TV station CFMS. Jerry appears to be on top of the world, but in between spinning the latest hits from Paul Anka, advertising Emulsa-fizz and taking calls on MS Feedback ("Where the viewer strikes back!), there's trouble at home. This 'flip side' manifests itself in the death throes of his marriage, evidenced by a series of phone calls Jerry takes during the breaks from his soon to be ex-wife, Grace.

First off, we'll start with Monkhouse as, you know, he's the main focal point of interest. And his acting chops are surprisingly high-grade, far superior to anything I was expecting. Okay, by 1966 Monkhouse had plenty of experience as an actual presenter to draw upon, but Jerry Janus is a fully fleshed character whose flaws and wounds need to be exposed to the world. Monkhouse, with relative ease, crafts a beguiling performance and, whilst maintaining an authentic Transatlantic accent (complete with slickly inauthentic charm) throughout, barely misses a beat in bringing Janus' corrupted self-serving persona to life.

Jerry's gleaming smile does, however, collapse under the weight of its own sheen whenever he picks up his domestic row with Grace. Why, he demands, is she leaving him? Has she found another man? No, she hasn't, it's much more complex than infidelity. Instead, it's Jerry's lack of integrity, a moral catastrophe hoisted on him by the devil's teat of CFMS, who want him to peddle any old rubbish (as well as a generous side helping of anti-communist propaganda) to the masses. Okay, Jerry argues, he's had to make compromises, but "that's the way the linoleum curls" if you want to make something of yourself.

It's an intriguing portrait of integrity and the way in which moral bankruptcy is, unfortunately, one of the surest ways to make a buck in, well, any industry where backs are available to stab. Cohen welds this nicely onto the old adage of the show must go on, evidenced repeatedly by Jerry segueing from heated arguments with his wife to effortlessly taking calls from viewers who want to talk politics, gush over their love for Jerry, or in the case of a persistent caller, be so critical of Jerry/CFMS that they read out a spoof advert for Slice-O, a razor perfect for slitting throats - the one time that Jerry's million dollar smile cracks on air.

Despite wanting to fight for his marriage, the success of being a big time player - even though he's found himself shoved into a late night slot - trumps the emotional richness of a genuine human relationship. Jerry briefly loses his footing when he realises this and, for a few moments, CFMS fails to successfully come back from a break. However, a quick call from the head of the station resets Jerry's immoral compass and, indeed, the show goes on and, in the process, Jerry's compromised soul is finally rubber-stamped with "Property of CFMS".

The whole script is a wonderful satire of commercial television, perhaps a thinly veiled dig at the still fledgling ITV network, who were, at the time, prone to heavy criticism for being downmarket. Kudos, too, must go to director Gareth Davies and producer Harry Moore who conjure up a sublime recreation of the television landscape of the time, a kitsch and campy smorgasbord of harmonious jingles and adverts for humdrum domesticity painted with an aspirational gloss. Truly, this a curio for anyone who has ever shown a passing interest in the history of British television, and it deserves to be seen by a wider audience.

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