Brucie at 80

He's an old-school entertainer who came up the hard way to become a national institution. Andrew Johnson on why it's still nice to see Forsyth on television

Bruce Forsyth didn't do well the first time he stepped in front of an audience. By his own admission, his accordion playing, tap-dance routine and smattering of patter at the Theatre Royal, Bilston, in 1942 was "dreadful". By the 1950s, things were little better: he recalls an audience member throwing a bag of chips at him at the Wood Green Empire.

On Friday, though, the veteran entertainer, presenter of Strictly Come Dancing, and all-round national institution will celebrate his 80th birthday, having spent more than 50 years at the top of his profession. He continues to anchor live Saturday-night prime-time television on one of the few shows that still offers a national family viewing experience.

And, at a time of life when most men are contemplating their twilight years on a golf course or down the pub, Forsyth shows no signs of flagging.

"I always said I'll pack it in when I've lost the buzz," he told The Independent on Sunday from his home in Surrey. "I still get the buzz."

To mark his milestone, the BBC last week recorded an extravaganza in his honour, which will be broadcast next Sunday. While Liza Minnelli, Ronnie Corbett and Jonathan Ross were leading the tributes, Forsyth still couldn't sit still, according to his friend, the comedy writer Barry Cryer.

"He was supposed to sit in a pen with his family, but he was jumping up in front of the audience all the time," Cryer said. "His energy is amazing."

Despite the opportunity television has brought him – he has played with many great performers, including Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jnr – Forsyth said last week that the advent of television made showbusiness as a whole "more abrasive".

"When I started there was hardly any TV at all," he said. "The main ambition then was to be on one of the main theatres. I worked every dump you can name. The training of being in variety and playing to family audiences was a much nicer environment to learn in. Today it's much more abrasive. If I was a young man today I'd probably have to come up through the comedy clubs. Then there was more camaraderie."

It hasn't all been plain sailing for the former strongman and ukulele player, however. He shot to fame in 1958 as the host of Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the Palladium and dominated the 1970s with The Generation Game and the 1980s with game shows such as Play Your Cards Right, but the end of the 1990s brought a lull in his career. However, it sparked back into life with a barn-storming performance as guest host of Have I Got News for You in 2003. His mastery of the cynical audience introduced his old-school powers to a new generation of viewers.

Ronnie Corbett said it was the training in variety that had helped Forsyth keep his edge. "Bruce was vaudeville and it was a very disciplined world," he recalled. "There were lots of silly little rules, like you couldn't be seen front of house, and you wouldn't dream of turning up in the suit you wore on stage." On the secret of Forsyth's longevity, he said: "He can do a bit of dance, a bit of a song; he can be a bit cheeky. His armoury is immense."

When he turns 80, Forsyth will join a select club of octogenarian entertainers who show no sign of leaving the stage. Ken Dodd, 80, is still packing them in with three-hour shows that would exhaust men half his age. Nicholas Parsons, 84, hosts Just a Minute on Radio 4. One of his regular guests is Clement Freud, 83. Then there's Humphrey Lyttelton, the 86-year-old jazz trumpeter and entertainer, who hosts another Radio 4 show, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. And Eric Sykes is still working at 84.

Elaine Bedell, the BBC's controller of entertainment, paid tribute to the work Forsyth puts into Strictly Come Dancing. "He's brilliant at keeping the audience going," she said. "It's a live show and the pressure is huge. He completely understands that the audience should feel part of the show. He warms them up with a song and takes ladies out of the audience to dance with, which is never broadcast."

Jimmy Tarbuck agrees: "He's a great push-and-shove man – he knows what to do when members of the audience come on stage. I wish he'd retire and give us younger ones a chance."

The chip-throwing incident all those years ago illustrates the point. "The audience were embarrassed when they saw the chip wrapper hit the floor," Forsyth remembered. "But I walked over, picked up a chip, took a bite and said, 'Too much salt'. And I got a nice round of applause."

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