Birmingham comedian Dave Ismay talks about the last hours of close friend Bob Monkhouse.
He was a comedy legend who spent a lifetime training every cell in his body to try to make people laugh. But in his final days, the once energetic Bob Monkhouse lay motionless, dying from cancer.
He had moved from his marital bed upstairs ready to face his final curtain in the ground floor cinema room of his Bedfordshire home, Claridges.
Stroking one hand was his second wife of three decades, Jackie. Holding the other, after being with him for most of the last month of his life, was his best friend – Birmingham-born comedian and compere Dave Ismay.
“Lying on a huge canopy, propped up by constantly-plumped pillows, Bob looked every inch a King of Comedy lying in state on some huge catafalque,” says Dave. “I would help Bob in and out of bed. I was trying to make life easier for Jackie who didn’t find it easy to cope.”
Three decades earlier, Dave had been the warm-up man and voice-over artist on Bob’s smash hit ATV series The Golden Shot.
Now, as the last days of December 2003 ticked away, Dave and Jackie were unwittingly hours away from Bob’s grand finale.
As his nurse ruffled a magazine, 75-year-old Bob became instantly alert.
‘What was that?’ he enquired. Dave remembered Bob’s bizarre collection of “worldwide hearing devices” and rebuked his pal for being “an old fraud”.
Jackie said: “All these years you pretended you couldn’t hear me and you’ve been fooling me all this time”.
To which Bob replied with his final words: “Did somebody say something?”
The following night, December 28, Jackie and Dave went their separate ways to bed shortly before midnight.
At 2.15am on the morning of December 29, the overnight nurse knocked on Dave’s bedroom door.
Bob, who had lost son Gary to cerebral palsy and his other first-marriage son Simon to a drugs overdose, had slipped away. Could Dave pop downstairs to confirm he was dead?
Job done, he knocked on Jackie’s door to break the sad news.
“She was grateful I was there,” says Dave, now 64. “She would find it difficult to cope when she was on her own.”
Brought up “in a God-fearing household where my beloved mother was an avid church attendee”, Dave never fully understood why Bob made him his best mate for “the last 20 years of our 30-year relationship” when Bob was a non-believer with the view: “When we die the body is an empty shell and the spirit vanishes”.
Dave’s impression when they first met at Birmingham’s Dolce Vita nightclub in the late 1960s was that Bob offered “an immaculate display of style, polish, erudition and wit” compared with “my stuttering, stumbling ineptitude”.
Their friendship became so strong that Bob and Jackie, and Dave and his second wife Dodie (the leading make-up artist from Lew Grade’s ATV empire), used to share holidays in Barbados. And bills.
One day, when Bob knew it was going to be Dave’s turn to pay, he left an £18,000 bill on show for him. It was for his 60th birthday’s private plane trip to another Caribbean holiday idyll with two more friends. Bob teased Dave by leaving the bill out for days.
“I don’t think he’d have done that to anyone else,” says Dave. “We were just such close friends. I was never in awe of his money, but if he wanted us to do something he would always insist that we did.”
Of course, Dave didn’t have to pay the £18,000, but Bob’s ‘joke’ highlights one of the problems of being a well-paid star’s confidante. How could you ever keep up financially?
Though more important than money, Bob and Dave’s relationship was also built from a tower of family straws.
Once Bob had gone, Dave noted how Jackie “took a perverse pleasure in preventing people from liking her”. Dave and Dodie tried to maintain her friendship, but the widow became increasingly lost and distant.
“Only when Bob was alive did the girls really get on well together,” says Dave.
After constantly talking about Bob and complaining that she wasn’t being invited to parties, Dave suggested she hold one herself. His advice fell on deaf ears.
“Bob’s time and space were not subject to the direct influence of Mrs Monkhouse,” says Dave.
“I was part of the baggage that came with that arrangement and a necessary element in his overall strategy. Bob and Dodie would have looked after each other as they adored each other, but me and Jacs? I think not.”
Found in bed by Sandra, her Barbadian home help, Jackie had died suddenly aged 71 in March, 2008. To avoid embarrassment, Dave and Dodie missed her funeral.
But her death isn’t the reason why he’s just written a book called Bob Monkhouse – Unpublished.
It’s in memory of Bob, whose 80-page beyond-the-grave contribution is the material he’d given to Dave because he was too ill to use it himself.
“Everyone has got a book in them, it’s just a question of getting it out,” says Dave, who co-wrote Unpublished with prolific show business author Chris Gidney.
Fifteen months ago, a Solihull specialist inadvertently gave Dave the spur he needed by wrongly telling him he had just three months to live if he didn’t stop drinking.
Eight weeks later, tests proved that his liver cirrhosis – which has also affected his knee joints – was an hereditary, excess iron-retention condition called haemochromatosis, which affects one in 400 people.
Currently having one litre of blood drained every week in Burton’s Queen’s Hospital, his liver condition should improve, but his knees now dictate it’s golf via buggy.
Being given three months to live really focuses your mind,” says Dave.
“I even bought a new Merc because I thought if I’m going to go, it will be in a comfortable car!
“It also made me do the book.”
*Bob Monkhouse – Unpublished by Dave Ismay with Chris Gidney (JR Books, £16.99)