Comedian and presenter of Bullseye

Born: August 20 1937;

Died: March 14 2018

JIM Bowen, who has died aged 80, was a stand-up comedian who achieved national recognition as the host of the darts-based gameshow Bullseye.

The show, which aired on ITV at teatime on a Sunday, ran from September 1981 until July 1995, with 14 series in all. It was the first television programme to recognise the obvious viewer appeal of a quiz that married the twin disciplines of general knowledge and proficiency at darts, with the aim of winning racing bicycles, toasters, Kenwood mixers or even “Bully’s Special Prize”.

This last was often expensive but of limited use to the winners: jetskis were a regular fixture, while a couple from a tower block in Walsall won a speedboat. The announcements, by Bowen’s sidekick Tony Green, a former professional and the BBC commentator for the championships at Frimley Green, portrayed the prizes in glowing terms: “Wake up and drink up with Bully’s lovely Teasmaid!”; “Fun and games for all the family with these Monopoly and Cluedo sets!”; “Be the envy of your friends with this luxury home stereo system!”

But most of the show’s numerous catchphrases came from Bowen himself, who was prone to producing redundant statements of approval, such as “Great. Lovely, super, fabulous.” Terry Wogan once kept a running tally of the number of times Bowen said “smashing” in one episode, and calculated 41 in under half an hour (minus adverts).

Others – “out of the black and into the red, nothing in this game for two in a bed”; “you’ve got a light on, your money’s safe”; “you can’t beat a bit of Bully” – were more consciously constructed around the show’s format. Bully was an animated bull in a darts player's red and white shirt, who would pop up to wink at contestants or report the score. The programme also featured a guest celebrity from the darts world, with figures such as Eric Bristow, Jocky Wilson, Bobby George and Keith Deller making frequent appearances.

Jim Bowen was a central part of the show’s appeal. His direct manner, lack of surface polish and Northern accent were not only appealing to viewers but to the contestants, the majority of whom were themselves working-class northerners. Bowen himself recognised that part of his appeal was his lack of resemblance to most slick game show hosts.

“I was so poor at the game show game,” he once said. “I’d say ‘What do you do for a living?’ They’d reply ‘I’ve been unemployed for two years’ and I’d say ‘Smashing!’ It was just a word to give me a chance to think.” In this he maligned himself; Bowen was actually a thoroughly sympathetic host, never condescending and always giving the impression of being on the contestants’ side. The sole exception to this rule was when the non-throwing partner (whose job was to answer the questions) proved especially inept at the oche.

He was born Peter Williams at Heswell, Cheshire on August 20 1937 to an unmarried mother and was adopted by a working-class couple, Joe and Annie Whittaker, who renamed him James. He grew up in Clayton-le-Moors, just outside Accrington in Lancashire, where his father was a bricklayer and his mother worked in a mill. He passed his 11-plus and attended Accrington Grammar School, but left school with only one O-level, and became a dustman before doing his national service.

He then trained as a PE teacher in Chester, and went on to become deputy headmaster of Caton Primary School near Lancaster. He became involved in amateur dramatics, where he met his wife Phyllis (née Owen), whom he married in 1959, and decided to try his hand as a stand-up on the northern club circuit. He adopted the stage name “Bowen” by amalgamating his wife and mother’s maiden names, on the basis that it would be shorter than “Whittaker” for autographs.

He juggled stand-up with teaching for a while in the 1960s, but his increasing success (and seeing a performance by Ken Dodd which he thought inspirational) encouraged him to chuck in the day job. His timing was good; the advent on television of Granada’s series The Comedians provided a strong demand for club comics and the opportunity of wider exposure. As a result of his popularity, he landed the presenting job on Bullseye – though Bowen claimed he had been fifth choice for the role.

His success in the job led to the show acquiring 17 million viewers at its peak, and brought Bowen a Rolls-Royce, a former railway station (Arkholme for Kirkby Lonsdale) which he converted as a country house, a salary of £500,000 and an invitation to speak at the Oxford Union, where he was greeted with rapturous applause by the students. He accused them of “taking the piss”.

After Bullseye was cancelled in 1995 (though repeats are still a daily fixture on Challenge TV, and it was later briefly revived with Dave Spikey), Bowen began working on radio, presenting a show on BBC Radio Lancashire. In 2002 he resigned after using a term with racist connotations (though he denied it had been intended in that way). He also popped up as an actor, notably in Peter Kay’s sitcom Phoenix Nights (2002), as well as small parts on Last of the Summer Wine, Muck and Brass and Jonathan Creek.

After leaving his radio show, he worked on the cruise ship circuit and became a popular after-dinner speaker. In 2005 he performed at the Fringe, with a show based on his recollections of Bulleye, and the following year returned to Edinburgh for a stand-up stint at the comedy club Jongleurs. In 2009 he had another radio show on Indigo FM in Cumbria.

In 2011 he suffered two minor strokes, and his health declined thereafter; he also suffered from emphysema (he had smoked 80-a-day until the mid-1970s). Away from his work, Bowen was a keen jazz fan, and competent trumpeter, and liked a pint. He was devoted to his wife, who drove him to his stand-up gigs. She survives him with their children, Susan and Peter.