Watch With Monkey (lost unaired pilot of scrapped BBC family comedy show; 2003)
Monkey is a puppet character who originally starred in ITV Digital advertisements from 2001 to 2002 alongside Al, played by Johnny Vegas. The character's popularity led to him and Al later promoting PG Tips from 2007 to 2017. During his time off television, the BBC considered producing a primetime Saturday night family variety show featuring Monkey as host. This prompted the creation of a pilot titled Watch With Monkey, which ultimately went unaired despite extensive plans for a BBC One broadcast.
Following ONdigital's rebranding to ITV Digital in July 2001, the company was aiming to revitalise its stalling subscriber base and compete against Sky Digital. It therefore commissioned the advertising agency Mother to establish a new mascot for the company. Mother promptly contacted Jim Henson Company subsidiary Creature Shop to produce a puppet character, constructed by Paul Jomain and controlled by Nigel Plaskitt and Susan Beattie. Their creation was the knitted puppet Monkey, a Ben Miller-voiced long-suffering, sarcastic and occasionally grumpy yet cheeky primate. In a £10m advertising campaign, he was the straight character to Al, a happy-go-lucky man played by comedian Johnny Vegas whose Lancashire accent led to him referring to his best friend as Muŋkɛ. Commercials consisted of the pair bonding and bickering over ITV Digital while promoting its easy set-up, interactive services, and exclusive football coverage. The advertisements proved a major hit, subsequently making a star out of Monkey. To further capitalise on the puppet's popularity, ITV Digital also offered a free Monkey soft toy upon subscribing to the service, produced at £5 per unit by Dutch Magic.
While the Monkey and Al advertisements proved immensely popular, they could not turn around ITV Digital's fortunes. Only 1.3 million had subscribed to the service by October 2001, with Sky gaining the biggest market share at 5.7 million. Unreliable digital boxes, poor security that prompted widespread piracy, and an overall uninspiring channel offering, led to poor retention of the existing customer base. However, it was ITV Digital's disastrous £315 million deal with the Football League that sealed the service's fate, with subsequent ratings failing to justify the immense costs involved. Thus, ITV Digital collapsed in May 2002 after the service lost £1.2 billion. Nevertheless, Monkey himself remained a hot property. Even during ITV Digital's collapse, Monkey made guest appearances on The Frank Skinner Show and Record of the Year, and plans emerged for him to interview stars at the 2002 BRIT Awards. Alas, these fell through to avoid possibly violating rules regarding cross-promotion, with Monkey notably representing a commercial product. These appearances were overseen by ITV Digital's marketing director Jeremy Dale, who nevertheless aimed to prevent over-exposing the character to avoid damaging the company's future advertising plans.
Watch With Monkey
One of Monkey's last ITV Digital advertisements featured sporting presenter Des Lynam. There were also plans in January 2002 to have him and Al star in a few vignettes, as well as a possible music single. But after ITV Digital's assets were evaluated by administrators Deloitte & Touche, Monkey soon went absent from television screens. It was reported in May 2002 that Monkey's intellectual property rights were in dispute, with Deloitte claiming ITV Digital were sole owners of the puppet, while Mother insisted they, as creators, held the rights. Mother also alleged ITV Digital had not paid most of the £10 million it owed for the campaign. Meanwhile, Vegas contacted Mother demanding compensation as much of his work for ITV Digital remained unpaid by August 2002. Monkey proved a lucrative asset for both entities since many other companies were seeking to utilise him to advertise their products. The legal situation remained unresolved until February 2003, when it was announced both parties decided to donate the rights to British charity Comic Relief. Subsequently, Monkey appeared in the 2003 Red Nose Day, which is Comic Relief's telethon historically broadcast once every two years on BBC television, now annually since 2022. He also began appearing in Walkers crisps advertisements in a Comic Relief cross-promotion.
Noting Monkey's enduring popularity, Comic Relief and Mother expressed interest in having Monkey star in his own BBC television show, with potential film opportunities too. These plans appeared to come to fruition, when on 13th November 2003, the BBC announced that a pilot starring Monkey was being filmed and would be aired on BBC One. Titled Watch With Monkey, it was a planned 50-minute pilot aimed to kick-start a possible primetime Saturday night show, thus potentially rivalling ITV programming starring Ant and Dec. The pilot was a variety show, featuring celebrity interviews, performing arts, outside broadcasts, and even game show segments. Comedians Jonathan Ross and Dawn French were set to make appearances, though it is unclear whether Vegas was ever planned to reunite with his former sidekick. Under the collaboration of BBC Comedy, Comic Relief, Mother, and the Jim Henson Organisation, the show was considered a modern take on The Muppet Show.
While a fixed date was not confirmed, it was known the pilot was set to air in early 2004. Alas, despite the pilot being substantially backed by the BBC, it ultimately went unaired and the concept was quietly cancelled. Thus, Monkey's television appearances proved limited in the following years. That was until May 2006, when it was announced that UK tea brand PG Tips, who was seeking a replacement for its long-running advertisements featuring chimps, was to reunite Monkey and Al for its own commercials. The inaugural advertisement referenced the pair's ITV Digital history, with Monkey explaining his absence following the company's collapse to a rather resentful Al. However, the pair's bond returns thanks to their shared love of PG Tips, resulting in Al allowing his friend to live with him once more. More advertisements featuring the duo were made well until the 2010s, with a Monkey ChatBot also produced for 2017's Red Nose Day.
While Al and Monkey advertisements for ITV Digital and PG Tips can be easily viewed online, Watch With Monkey was left unaired and has fallen into obscurity. Aside from a few mentions by the BBC and other news sources, no other traces of the show, including footage and photos, are known to be publicly available.
- ITV Sport (partially found coverage of English football matches; 2001-2002)
- Manchester City 3-0 Watford (partially found footage of Football League First Division match; 2001)
- Sheffield Wednesday vs Blackburn Rovers (partially found footage of Football League Cup matches; 2002)
- BBC News reporting on ONdigital's relaunch to ITV Digital. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The Guardian summarising ITV Digital's failure outside of the Football League deal. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- FourFourTwo documenting the collapse of ITV Digital, primarily because of its Football League deal. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- PuppetVision summarising the creators of Monkey. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- Archived Campaign Live summarising the success of Monkey in promoting two very different brands. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The Guardian organgrinder blog discussing the return of Monkey to television screens. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The Guardian reporting on Monkey's exploding popularity by January 2002 and Jeremy Dale's plans for the character. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- This is Money summarising the Al and Monkey ITV Digital advertising campaign and the costs involved. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- ONhistory summarising the 2 Minutes advertisement. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- ONhistory summarising the ITV Active advertisement. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- ONhistory summarising the Ryan Giggs advertisement. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- ONhistory summarising the Des Lynam advertisement. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- 3rd February 2002 issue of The Sunday Mail noting Monkey's popularity by February 2002. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- BBC News noting the free Monkey soft toy deal upon buying an ITV Digital subscription. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- ONhistory summarising the Free Monkey advertisement. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The London Economic summarising ITV Digital's failure despite the success of the advertisements. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- BBC News reporting on ITV Digital's closure. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- BBC News reporting on Monkey's planned appearance at the 2002 BRIT Awards. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The Guardian reporting on Monkey withdrawing from the 2002 BRIT Awards. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- Marketing Week reporting on spin-off plans for Monkey in January 2002. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- BBC News reporting on the growing legal battle over Monkey's intellectual property rights. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- BBC News reporting on Vegas seeking payment from Mother for his work with ITV Digital. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The Guardian reporting on Monkey's intellectual property rights being handed over to Comic Relief. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- Days of the Year summarising Red Nose Day. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- BBC press release announcing the pilot. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- BBC News reporting on the pilot. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- Archived CampaignLive reporting on the pilot and its potential to kickstart a primetime Saturday night show. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The Daily Mirror reporting on the pilot and planned guest appearances. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- r/lostmedia discussing the unaired pilot. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The Guardian reporting on PG Tips being set to air its own Al and Monkey advertisements. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- The Guardian reporting on the first PG Tips advertisement starring Al and Monkey. Retrieved 31st Aug '23
- Promo Marketing report on the Monkey ChatBot for 2017's Red Nose Day. Retrieved 31st Aug '23