A look at what we could have won and what we might have lost: James McMahon on Bullseye

I am not sure what it is about Bullseye that captures the imagination so much. I have thought and written about and watched Bullseye so much recently that Jim Bowen is starting to pop up in my dreams (not joking), and I wasn’t even alive when the show was originally transmitted. The fascination that this intriguing historical artefact, as it has to be seen as now, conjures up is the subject of a superb BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Look At What You Could Have Won’, presented by writer James McMahon.

Although this doc uses one of Jim Bowen’s catchphrases from the show as the source of its title, it does not indulge in cliches about the show or reflect on it without a critical eye at times. It is a warm and highly interesting exploration into one of the all-time game show and TV classics. The documentary is also highly personal, but shares what is ubiquitous in everyone’s love of Bullseye. It also has some extremely moving and heartwarming chats with some of the show’s past contestants.

Here is James in his own words to tell you a little bit more about the documentary…

dartsweb: What does Bullseye evoke for you and what appealed to you about it in the difficult personal times you describe in the documentary?

James: I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. To the eternal frustration of the millions of people with OCD (estimated to be around 2.3% of the global population) it remains a wildly misunderstood condition. At the time you’re talking about, I didn’t understand it at all. And so I sat on my couch and I thought and I thought and I thought. A lot of the time that was happening it was the early hours of the morning. Repeats of ‘Bullseye’ were almost always on the TV. It took me back to simpler times – for society, but more so myself. Potato fritters, my nana’s house, plumes of blue smoke coming from her cigarette, a copy of ‘The Beano’ if I’d been good. The documentary is about how society has changed, but there could have easily been one made about my shifting mental state during that time. 

Bullseye TV Game Show - The History of Bullseye


The documentary really eloquently describes one of the huge successes of the show, which is the fantastic relationship kindled between Jim Bowen and the contestants, and indeed the setting which allowed the contestants to really come alive. It’s a real shame that TV has become so sanitised and we don’t see this human element nearly so much, isn’t it? And I think you were right in exploring how this says a lot about us as a society now.

I think that was what really helped me retreat back and inside the world that ‘Bullseye’ presented. Nobody was ever the butt of the joke – flick the channel and you’ve got a celebrity being ordered to eat a kangaroo penis, but everyone on ‘Bullseye’ was treated with respect and – all credit to Jim, here – compassion. But it wasn’t saccharine viewing either. It’s worth remembering that ‘Bullseye’ only ever ran during Tory rule. A lot of people in working class communities, on the show and in front of the TV, weren’t having a great time. And yet it was often really funny. There’s humour in stoicism and in strength. Inspiration too. You might think, ‘calm down James, it’s just a quiz show with some darts in it…’ but I really think that ‘Bullseye’ is a window on lost qualities, and a lost world.

I feel like there are two reactions people have to watching Bullseye and particularly the prizes (both the items and cash amounts) now, which is either finding them somewhat open to ridicule and laughable, or actually far more relatable and practical compared to what we see now. You don’t need £1 million on the table to get people watching or indeed for ‘entertainment’, do you?

I suspect that some of the often-mocked prizes on ‘Bullseye’ were picked with a smattering of self-awareness, certainly towards the end of the show’s run. Some of them have aged badly too – imagine offering a ‘ladies mink coat’ as a prize in 2022! Though I did learn a couple of interesting prize related titbits during the making of the radio show! The speedboats, which became ubiquitous with ‘Bullseye’ became so because director Peter Harris struck up a deal with a speedboat manufacturer in Walsall. Most people took the cash equivalent! Certainly, the victorious couple in the tower block did! But for the largest part, the prizes on ‘Bullseye’ were genuinely desirable to the people playing. I think Roy, who I spoke to in the documentary, still dreams contentedly of the VHS player he won back in 1985…


I think you and I both would like to see Bullseye back in a similar form to how it was in the 80s and 90s with all the obvious representation issues ironed out. What do you think about my idea to have Bob Mortimer as presenter? Or who else would be great on the show? We need someone warm and relatable who can build that rapport with the contestants, and we need another Northerner!

All I’m going to say to this is that I have a degree of presenting experience myself, and my diary is looking depressingly open… (DW: I am also happy to offer my services as the Tony Green to James’ Jim Bowen)

Finally, to those who haven’t yet but definitely should listen to your documentary, what do you hope they get from it?

I think I’d just like the listener to feel 30 minutes of warmth to be honest. It’s weird, as a journalist, I’m normally drawn to quite dark and upsetting things – I’ve written a lot about true crime, for example. It was strange to make my Radio 4 documentary debut with subject matter that wasn’t either of those things. But perhaps it’s what both myself, and the increasingly divided discourse, needed!

‘Look At What You Could Have Won’ is available on BBC Sounds

Thanks to James McMahon

Image Credits: Bullseye’s Website

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