Bob Monkhouse had one of the largest private collections of films in the UK in the 1960s and 70s – until the Serious Crime Squad stepped in.
The late Bob Monkhouse was rightly famous for many reasons. A superb stand-up comedian – just search out the programme on his final gig for evidence of that (The Last Stand, it’s on YouTube) – as well as a fixture of British light entertainment for decades, he passed away at the end of 2003, aged 75.
Monkhouse appeared in a handful of films too over the course of his career, taking a role in the first Carry On movie, and starring in a pair of British Dentist comedies, Dentist In The Chair and Dentist On The Job, to which he contributed his excellent writing too.
Outside of the limelight, though, Monkhouse had an absolute passion for watching films over being in the them. More than that, he was avid collector and preserver of movies, amassing – in the pre-VHS days – one of the biggest private film collections in the UK. He caught the film bug in childhood, when he was able to screen the films of Buster Keaton on a small projector in his bedroom. His passion was such that in the 1960s, he presented three series of the TV programme Mad Movies, introducing silent films and using them as a way to explain the techniques of comedy.
Yet Monkhouse found himself, inadvertedly, on the wrong side of the law when it came to his film collection. In his excellent memoir Crying With Laughter, he told the story of one evening in 1975, after a day working on the first series of a show I’m Bob, He’s Dickie, with Dickie Henderson, there was a knock at the door. He was shocked to discover it was the police.
He’d been in the midst of setting up a film to watch in his home cinema when the knock came. Minutes later, he’d been arrested by detectives from the Serious Crime Squad.
The officers then asked him he had any 16mm films at his home, of which he had hundreds at his home. He was told by the detectives that they were having to seize the films.
Amongst those taken away were prints of 1933’s Kong Kong, Citizen Kane, missing scenes from Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (he’d found the negative in the Czech Republic), and the sole copy of 1931 British comedy Ghost Train. He’d offered his collection to the BFI before his arrest, but the-then very different institute had not taken him up on his offer.
Monkhouse was interrogated until four the following morning, as the detectives went through his collection, film can by film can. The entire collection had to be documented, and Monkhouse was required to explain each film, and had he’d acquired them.
He wasn’t even told the charge, and he wouldn’t find that out until he returned home to found his home surrounded by journalists. They told him that Monkhouse had been charged with conspiring to import copies of feature films from distributors such as Warner Bros and Columbia, without having the rights to do so.
As one journalist told him. “they say you’ve plotted to defraud for eleven years”. Neither Monkhouse or the journalist understood what he’d been plotting and what fraud had taken place.
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Further charges followed a few weeks later, when Monkhouse also discovered who his apparent co-conspirator was. He’d bought some of his films from another collector in Acton, who had in turn had legally imported them from America. In America, the films had been advertised for sale publicly. Nobody could see a law that had been broken.
Nonetheless, the case dragged on, eventually coming to court.
Things got even more odd. A man called Nat Cohen – who was part of the company behind Carry On Sergeant – testified on Monkhouse’s behalf, stating that he’d given films to him, knowing he was a collector.
Meanwhile, a witness for the prosecution? None other than Terry Wogan.
Amongst Monkhouse’s collection was a thank you note, officers discovered, from a 10-year old boy by the name of Andrew. The note thanked Monkhouse for lending him a film for his birthday party. Turns out that Andrew was Terry Wogan’s son, hence him being called as a witness. Wogan confirmed the letter was from his young son, adding “Bob once lent me a book as well – was he diddling the Maidenhead lending library?”
The case went on for eleven days in all, before the judge had had enough. He dismissed the jury, told Monkhouse there was no case to answer (there’d been no evidence at all that he’d been renting the films out, for instance), and all charges were dropped. The trial had been expected to go on for three months. It was over in under two weeks.
The case, sadly, had ramifications for cinema. Whilst some of his films were returned, not all of them came back. The Cameraman? Gone. Ghost Train? Gone. “My successful defence had failed to establish my right of ownership without each film title requiring its individual claim in civil court”, Monkhouse wrote, meaning some of the films could never be returned.
Many were destroyed as a consequence.
Ironically, just months after his trial, video recorders came into existence, and the same companies that had been pressing for charges for simply owning legal copies of a film at home were now planning to box them up for sale themselves. The paranoia over video recordings – remember when companies wanted people to only be able to record programmes and keep them for weeks before deleted them? – was a whole other story.
Monkhouse, of course, was a keen consumer of VHS tapes, and by the mid-90s had two rooms of his home stacked from the floor to the ceiling with cassettes. For a while in the immediate aftermath of his trial, his passion for film dwindled, and he wouldn’t even watch films in the cinema in his home. But whilst the loss of his rare movies always stung, he ultimately simply loved the movies too much. He remains very much missed.
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