Bruce Forsyth: Hasn't he done well?

There's never been a showbiz career like it. And as 'Strictly' returns to our screens tonight, the BBC is once again looking to this octogenarian king of the catchphrase to spearhead its battle for ratings.

There are very few men known to the British public by their first names only. Ant and Dec spring to mind. Jamie, perhaps. William and Harry, of course. But king of them all is Brucie, back centre stage this evening on Strictly Come Dancing, fully 68 years after he first ventured into the limelight as a song, dance and accordion act called Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom.

He was 14 then; he is 82 now, an institution on television scarcely less than the news. There are those who think it's high time he was pensioned off to the golf course, and it's undoubtedly true that he's not as slick with an autocue as he used to be. But surely that's a little ungenerous towards a man who, by any measure, is a show-business phenomenon, the very embodiment of an old trouper. And when the curtain does finally fall on the extraordinary career of Bruce Forsyth CBE, there will be only one assessment to make: didn't he do well?

One hopes that the curtain will fall at a time of his own choosing, that he will realise when it's time to take a final bow, not least because the old boy doesn't take kindly to being ushered towards the wings when he's not ready to go. In October 2000, I was one of a small pack of journalists invited to a suite at the Dorchester hotel in London to hear Forsyth lambaste David Liddiment, then director of programmes at ITV, for apparently axeing one of his game shows, Play Your Cards Right, and moving the other, Bruce's Price Is Right, to an undesirable Saturday teatime slot.

As if distributing game-show instructions, Brucie jauntily walked round the room handing us a series of charts showing that, unlike many programmes on ITV at the time, neither of his shows had been underperforming. "Never in more than 40 years on ITV have I been out of prime time," he protested. "This man has embarrassed me, humiliated me, and shown me no respect whatsoever."

He has long had a high although not unreasonable estimation of his own worth to TV companies. But that afternoon in the Dorchester, not even he would have predicted that 10 years later, as an octogenarian, he would be hosting an hour of Saturday night light entertainment, this time on the BBC, of greater popularity than either of the shows he felt were being treated so cavalierly. Boy, did he play his cards right. However, he was also dealt a favourable hand, by the unwitting Angus Deayton.

In 2003, after a sex-and-drugs scandal had forced Deayton to step down as presenter of the BBC's satirical panel show Have I Got News for You, Forsyth was one of those invited to take his place for one week only. There were plenty who thought, and perhaps hoped, that the superannuated game show host would look out of his depth amid all that rapid-fire wit and edgy material. But he played a blinder. He treated audience members like one of his old game-show crowds, and they, to the manifest surprise of team captains Ian Hislop and Paul Merton, responded rapturously. It was a spectacle that gave executives a radical idea: maybe they'd just found the man to co-host a new prime-time show being planned for the following year, a variation on Come Dancing of blessed memory. And so a star was reborn.

Surprisingly, given that he seems to have been on television since about the time John Logie Baird invented it, Forsyth had been in show business for 16 years before stardom struck. For years he worked the country's variety halls as the second-spot comic, by his own admission the lowest form of animal life in the business. In 1958, he was slogging through a summer season in Babbacombe in Devon when his friends François and Zandra, a novelty dancing act, persuaded Billy Marsh, an agent who worked for the impresario Bernard Delfont, to take a look at him.

Of course, the age of variety is dead now, and the thought of novelty dancers called François and Zandra doesn't necessarily make all of us inclined to mourn. But the pair certainly deserve a footnote in the history of television, because Marsh liked what he saw and recommended Forsyth to Val Parnell, who ran the Palladium and was looking for someone to take over his Sunday night TV show.

Aged 30, having spent more than half his life treading the boards, Forsyth had his big break as host of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, broadcast live on ITV. He signed a six-week contract with Parnell, but four years later he was still going strong every Sunday, crooning, hoofing and swapping gags with the likes of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jnr and Nat King Cole.

Unfortunately, the one star he really wanted they never got. Frank Sinatra eluded Bruce Forsyth as he was later to elude Michael Parkinson. They met only once, backstage at the Festival Hall where Sinatra was top of a bill also featuring the pop group Guys and Dolls, one of whom was Forsyth's daughter Julie (by his first wife Penny Calvert). As Forsyth recounts the story, Sinatra had his ol' blue eyes firmly fixed on Julie, and it's entirely fatuous but utterly irresistible to consider that if things had worked out differently, he could have ended up as Sinatra's father-in-law. They could have recorded a duet called "Come Fly with Me ... with Me Come Fly".

Giving the nation catchphrases is not like giving the nation penicillin, but it is still remarkable to think that Brucie has been doing it for 52 years. The parents of children who now know him for saying "keep dancing" on Saturdays more readily associate him with all those Saturdays in the 1970s when no edition of The Generation Game was complete without him telling the audience that it was "nice to see you, to see you nice" and exhorting the toothsome Anthea Redfern to "give us a twirl". And their parents remember him for insisting "I'm in charge!" during Beat the Clock on Sunday Night at the London Palladium.

Pleasingly, it was watching Beat the Clock on an old edition of Sunday Night at the London Palladium dubbed on German television in the 1960s that gave a Dutch housewife the idea for a show called Een Van De Acht (One out of Eight). And it was Een Van De Acht on which the BBC based The Generation Game, which, even in the age of The X Factor and, for that matter, Strictly Come Dancing, surely remains unrivalled as wholesome family entertainment.

Forsyth had quit the show by the time that he and Redfern got divorced in 1979. (They had married in 1973 after meeting, it being the 1970s, at a Miss Lovely Legs contest.) In 1983, he married Wilnelia Merced, who had been Miss Puerto Rico and then Miss World. It being the 1980s, they had met when both were judges at the Miss World contest. And they are married still, with a son together. Only 10 years ago, Wilnelia, younger than her husband by 32 years, miscarried their second child.

Inevitably, there has been plenty of personal heartache and professional frustration for Forsyth. Yet for the son of a garage owner in Edmonton, north London, it has been a gilded life. He once told me, recalling that Lionel Bart nearly gave him the part of Fagin in Oliver!, that he wished he had acted in more films. It is interesting how even huge stars, household names, look back on lifetimes of missed opportunities. But to rather disloyally invoke the catchphrase of another TV star, there aren't many second-spot comics for whom opportunity has knocked as loudly. It is many years since television's Mr Sunday Night became its Mr Saturday Night, and that, astonishingly, is what Brucie remains.

Brian Viner's Nice to See It, to See It Nice: The 1970s in Front of the Telly, is published by Simon & Schuster

A life in brief

Born 22 February 1928, north London.

Family Youngest child of John, a mechanic, and Florence. Married three times, currently to former Miss World Wilnelia. He has six children: five daughters and a son.

Career Made TV debut at 14 as Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom. Began presenting Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1957. Has hosted Play Your Cards Right, The Generation Game and The Price Is Right. Returned to the BBC in 2003 as a guest host on Have I Got News for You. Began co-hosting Strictly Come Dancing in 2004. Received a Bafta fellowship in 2008 and has been awarded an OBE and CBE.

He says "I don't want to grow old gracefully. I want to put up a bit of a fight."

They say "He is one of the great performers of our generation – of any generation. He's got to that stage now where it really doesn't matter what he does. He might be a bit slower. He might fluff the odd line – doesn't matter, the audience just loves him." Greg Dyke, former BBC director general

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