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Who Stole Bob Monkhouse’s Jokes?

The extraordinary story behind the theft of Bob Monkhouse’s joke books in 1995 and the subsequent efforts to find them. The joke books were extremely precious to Bob and were a lifetime’s work, his entire “creative output”; a compilation of gags, stories and plays that were irreplaceable to him, so much so that he referred to them as his “babies”.

The story begins in 1995, when Monkhouse was recording his hit TV show Bob Monkhouse on the Spot at BBC Television Centre. In a production office above Studio 8 he left a metal briefcase containing the books, and it was not until three days later, at a function at Windsor Great Park, that he opened the briefcase, only to discover that the books were no longer there. As company director and function host Michael Smith relates, Bob was utterly devastated and high tailed it back to the BBC hoping the books would be somewhere in the production office. They weren’t! Bob and his agent Peter Prichard utilised their relationship with the press to put out an appeal to try to find the books.

Bob’s fellow comedians such as Bernard Manning, Jim Bowen and Frank Carson talk about how, at first, they didn’t realise how important the books were to him. They joined the Press in lampooning his predicament. One newspaper even invited readers to send in corny gags to help Bob replace his lost ones. Bob offered a reward, through the media, offering £10,000 in cash to anyone who could return his books only to find himself being accused by police of contravening the Theft Act 1963 – Section 28. This was because Bob had effectively offered immunity from prosecution with his ‘no questions asked’ reward. The story was rapidly developing into high farce.

The books give a unique insight into Bob’s methodology as a comedian. As the king of one-liners, they were absolutely crucial to Bob’s act, but they were more than this. Bob used comedy as an escape from his problems in life and referred to performing as ‘Dr Theatre.’ The books were all part of this cure and were almost like a comfort blanket to him. It made it all the harder when their loss was ridiculed in the Press. The master of on-liners had had become the butt of one-liners himself.

The finger of blame pointed at several people, including BBC staff, but Bob finally settled on the comedian Adrian Walsh as the prime suspect. Walsh was a gag smith like Bob and had been working in the same BBC production office at the time. After being confronted by a friend of Bob’s, a mortified Walsh protested his innocence. But despite this the suspicion stayed with him for another 16 months until November 1996, when Peter Prichard took a call from a mystery South African, claiming he knew the whereabouts of the books and establishing that Walsh had nothing to do with it.

The investigating detective, John Murphy, recalls how Pritchard informed the police about the South African, Allen Swaine, and how a high-end sting operation was set up to get the books back from him. On November 14th 1996, Swaine arrived at Pritchard’s office to return the books and found himself arrested by policemen concealed within another part of the office. Swaine describes the whole operation as being like a scene out of ‘Keystone Cops‘.

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