Arise, Sir Bruce Forsyth!
He's had the nation in stitches for much of the past 52 years, says David Randall. Didn't he do well enough?
Sunday 19 December 2010
So here we are, less than a fortnight away from the New Year Honours, and who do we, at the most liberal of Sunday newspapers, think would be one of the most deserved knighthoods? Only a golf-playing, Conservative-leaning, toupée-wearing, 82-year-old fuss-pot who lives on a private estate in Surrey, and whom Woman's Hour once voted Male Chauvinist of the Year. His name, however, explains it all. He is Bruce Forsyth, the last of the great old troupers.
Last night, he was presiding over the climax to the latest Strictly Come Dancing series. With his 83rd birthday due in February, it could well prove to be his swansong. Few retirements could be less begrudged. For the past 52 years he has been supplying the viewing public with fun, laughter, and catchphrases – plus the occasional second-hand frisson of marital gossip. Before that, he was appearing in front of a far more limited public as he joked and tap-danced his way around the halls, starting in 1942, as the 14-year-old "Boy Bruce the Mighty Atom". His debut was at the Theatre Royal, Bilston, near Wolverhampton. Top of the bill was The Great Marzo. The precocious teenage hoofer and singer, accompanying himself on accordion and ukelele, was about as popular with the Midlands audiences as an air raid.
There followed a lengthy apprenticeship playing second-string comic on the wheezing, expiring variety circuit, sharing dressing-rooms with dog acts, getting fish'n'chips thrown at him at the Wood Green Empire, and losing his virginity in the back of a car to a showgirl called Doris. In 1953, he gave himself six years to succeed, and he'd used up five of these when he had the first of three strokes of fortune. Indeed, you could say that his success is down to the interventions of this unusual trio: a dance act called Francois and Zandra, a Dutch housewife, and Angus Deayton's sex life.
First, the dancers. They were appearing with the unknown Forsyth in a summer season at Babbacombe in south Devon, and suggested to agent Billy Marsh that he come down and look at the promising young comedian. Marsh was impressed, and, a short while later, when Val Parnell was looking for a youthful replacement for Tommy Trinder as compére of Sunday Night At The London Palladium (the biggest light entertainment programme on television in the early Sixties), Forsyth got the job.
What made him an instant hit was not his singing, dancing, gags, or slapstick (although his wallpapering routine with Norman Wisdom is a classic, thankfully preserved on YouTube) but his running of the chaotic "reality" interlude, Beat The Clock. This, sandwiched between turns such as a novelty acrobatic troupe from Moldova and the Morton Frazer Harmonica Gang, was when two couples from the audience tried to perform a task against the clock. His running commentary on their efforts gave him two catchphrases ("I'm in charge", and "Can you come back next week?"), and something which has stood him in lucrative stead ever since: the discovery that his real forte was in the relationship he had with the novices blundering about on screen, and with the audience. He had – and has never lost – a distinctive rapport.
It was this, and the happy madness of Beat The Clock, that gave him his next big triumph. A Dutch housewife was watching dubbed reruns of Palladium on German television, and hatched the idea for a show called Een van de Acht (One Out of Eight). Later, the BBC bought it, and re-christened it The Generation Game. They gave it to Bruce, and it became the staple of early Saturday night viewing on BBC during the Seventies, snaring viewers for an evening of The Duchess of Duke Street, The Two Ronnies, Match of The Day and Parkinson. What made it a success wasn't the prizes on the conveyor belt ("... teasmade, set of saucepans, cuddly toy..."), nor even his famous Rodin pose during the opening titles, but Bruce's goading of the participants, and his double-takes to the audience.
And Anthea Redfern. His first marriage (to dancer Penny Calvert) produced three daughters, but not the happiness to survive his fame. He'd had serious flings with singer Kathy Kirby and Ann Sidney, the UK's second Miss World, and his marriage was over in all but name when he met Anthea. After his protracted divorce, they married, had two daughters, but drifted apart, splitting in 1983. He may not be the easiest person in the world to live with, being fussy to the point of obsession about how his clothes (especially his shirts) are washed. While no one would accuse him of being in the vanguard of the gender equality movement, neither is he the old rake that his habit of marrying substantially younger women might suggest (Mrs Forsyth is 32 years his junior). And the remark for which he won Male Chauvinist of the Year in 1974 (prompted by barbs that Anthea had merely a decorative role on The Generation Game), may not have been entirely serious: "They obviously didn't take into account that Anthea was already cooking, sewing, ironing, and looking after our dogs, as well as bringing me my slippers. How could she have done more?"
His present, long-lasting consort, is Wilnelia Merced, another former Miss World, who we hope will shortly be known as Lady Forsyth. It was while watching television in bed with her one night in 2003, that the third of our fates took a hand. The programme was Have I Got News For You?, then freshly shorn of its regular host Angus Deayton because of red-top exposés of his cocaine-fuelled love life. It was being fronted by a succession of one-night stand-ins. Our bedtime viewers decided that Brucie could host it, he rang Paul Merton, the producers bit his hand off, and he duly entered the lions' den of satirists, and he triumphed. It was that performance that decided the makers of a new show based on ballroom dancing that Forsyth was their man. The rest is showbiz history.
So, how come, ladies and gentlemen on the committee which recommends these things to the sovereign, our most enduringly successful public entertainer has gone unknighted? It's not for the want of public clamour – campaigns by newspapers, Twitterers, and more than 30,000 on Facebook have all called for it, a view endorsed most recently by Sir Elton John. Why is it that the man who has meant more to generations of the viewing public than any other is untitled when knighthoods are handed out to civil servants, diplomats, and actor laddies like jelly babies at a panto? The answer, we suspect, is the eternal prejudice against entertainers. Marie Lloyd, Max Miller, Will Hay, Kenneth Horne, Tony Hancock, Eric Morecambe, Ronnie Barker all went to their graves untouched by royal sword, and Ronnie Corbett, Ken Dodd, and our hero may do so too if there isn't a change of heart. So, give us all a New Year lift, Ma'am; let us hear your famous catchphrase rendered thus: "Arise, Sir Bruce Forsyth!"
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