Long Runners: No 9: The Generation Game

Age: 22. Bruce Forsyth first struck the 'Thinker' pose at the top of the stairs on Saturday 18 December 1971 in an adapted version of a Dutch show, Ein van de Acht ('One Out of Eight'), which had been spotted by Bill Cotton, then head of BBC light entertainment. Larry Grayson took over the series in 1978 (when it, perhaps unsurprisingly, became known as Larry Grayson's Generation Game). It was during this period that the show gained its highest ever audience - a monstrous 23.9 million (Saturday 20 October 1979). Grayson continued saying 'Shut that door' until 1981, when the show took a nine-year sabbatical. At the instigation of Jim Moir, then head of light entertainment but also a former Generation Game producer (1971-75), Brucie bounced back in 1990.

Formula: Four couples, usually a parent and child (selected after a 50-minute interview from 4,000 applicants), are made to imitate experts in leisure activities - pottery, dog training, calypso singing, ventriloquism, judo, Polish dancing, whistling, dinosaur-sculpting, you name it - or participate in a ropey sketch starring Bruce. The winning couple get to sit in front of a conveyor-belt of consumer goodies (including the famous cuddly toy) for 40 seconds. They keep all those they remember afterwards. The show ends with the couple dancing to the theme tune with the host and hostess.

Has it changed much over the years? No, although the set - a sprawl of pastel-shaded squiggles - is 'more of the 1990s,' as producer David Taylor puts it. The other appreciable change is in Brucie's hair; he seems to have more now than he did in 1971. Otherwise, it's as you were for the Gen Game, which trades to a great extent on its familiarity (read, nostalgia): the theme tune ('Life is the Name of the Game'); the catchphrases ('Nice to see you, to see you nice', 'Didn't they do well?'); and the presence of a glamorous assistant - between 1972 and 1977 it was Anthea Redfern, then Mrs Forsyth. Grayson's henchperson was Isla St Clair. Giving Bruce a twirl now is Rosemarie Ford, who moonlights as presenter of Come Dancing.

Little-known facts: A notorious perfectionist, Bruce's off-stage catchphrase is said to be 'lackadaisical people make me angry'. Fifty-one years ago, he was a ukulele-playing child music-hall star, known as 'Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom'. Larry Grayson, too, had an earlier career - as a drag artist. On the very first series, Marcus Plantin, now head of the ITV Network Centre, was responsible for wrapping prizes for the conveyor-belt.

Drawbacks: Bruce's oleaginous 'showbiz' manner can grate. He lavishes praise on the audience - invariably called 'lovely' - and laughs immoderately during games. He can also be a little too solicitous when

contestants are eliminated: 'You're not losers,' he told one couple recently, apparently in contradiction of events. To add insult to injury, the prizes for an early exit are pretty naff: losers receive a Generation Game phone.

Why do nine million people watch it every week then? Because it spans the generation gap. Taylor says that 'the Generation Game lives up to its name. One of the reasons for its success is that it appeals to young as well as old.'

The bottom line - is it any good? Well, it does a good job. The format is old-fashioned and desperately untrendy compared to, say, Gladiators, but in the field of family entertainment, being old-fashioned and untrendy can be an advantage. This sort of show lives and dies with the presenter (after all, it is called Bruce Forsyth's Generation Game). He may be follicly challenged, he may represent the pro-celebrity golf- circuit wing of comedy, but Brucie's a true pro. Whether double-taking at a double entendre, serving up puns (a man who dropped a tray of custard puddings is deemed 'a trifle clumsy'), or deriding a contestant ('What the hell's going on over there?'), his demeanour bears out one of his earlier catchphrases: 'I'm in charge.' He is too quick ever to be bested by a contestant eager for 15 seconds of fame. Taylor recalls that 'with one especially unruly contestant, Bruce said, 'Just stand there', before looking up to the ceiling and asking, 'Have you got the weight ready now?' ' Ultimately, his stardom is confirmed by the fact that he is universally known by his forename. Sounding suspiciously like Gus, the executive in Drop the Dead Donkey, Taylor concludes: 'When Bruce, the contestants and the games come together, we're cooking with gas.' In other words, Bruce loves being in control - and that's what makes the Generation Game so successful.

(Photograph omitted)