Bruce Forsyth: Mr Nice To See You

The entertainer was honoured in the New Year list, but fans say he should have got a knighthood
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The Independent Online

Few people can lay greater claim to the title "national institution" than Bruce Forsyth. After nearly five decades in the public eye, the appointment of the 77-year-young entertainer and television game-show host as a CBE in the New Year Honours list is cause for celebration, even if his diehard fans believe it should have been nothing less than a knighthood.

Forsyth is being honoured not just for the longevity of his career, one feels, but for his resurrection from near-oblivion - from the slough of naffness. In common with many conventional or venerable toilers in the field of light entertainment (and here one thinks of Bob Monkhouse and Richard Whiteley), Forsyth, or "Brucie" as he is popularly known, has been adopted by a new generation of entertainers whose approbation has transformed him into a postmodern icon.

Even an old-stager like Brucie realises that when Little Brits David Walliams and Matt Lucas doff their caps to him in respect he has finally made the transition to what might be considered "cool" - a hip old dude in a hairpiece with a trunk full of catchphrases and a way with an audience that Julian Clary can only dream about.

The vehicle for Brucie's metamorphosis from clapped-out veteran to game show godfather is, clearly, Strictly Come Dancing, the alchemical combination of the old-fashioned Come Dancing programme and reality television which has delivered the kind of ratings - 11 million viewers at its height - that give television executives multiple orgasms.

Brucie runs the show pretty much as he has run all his game shows since "Beat the Clock", the game-show segment of Val Parnell's Sunday Night at the London Palladium, where he was "in charge" for the most part of four years from 1958, having been plucked from the stage of a variety hall at the age of 30. Having entered show business at the age of 14, Forsyth was by this time a seasoned professional and the two-week contract for the Palladium show stretched until December 1961, during which he became a household name.

Frustrated by the limitations of hosting, Forsyth aspired to a wider field of entertainment, even as far as the dramatic arts, and spent the following decade pursuing his dream. Most of the work was curiously unmemorable, consisting of music-dancing-comedy specials for television or plays such as Birds on the Wing, in which he played a conman. There will be those who have fond memories of Forsyth turning up as the title role in The Canterville Ghost in the TV Mystery and Imagination series, but there was more dead air in this decade than lively dialogue.

In 1971, things changed for ever and Brucie's fate was sealed. The Generation Game hit the small screen with Forsyth coining a new set of catchphrases ("Nice to see you. To see you, nice"), adding a little sauce to his onscreen banter with his hostesses (including Anthea Redfern, whom he married in 1973), and generally taking the mickey out of the contestants. It was a tried and tested formula and it worked again in spades. The Generation Game drew down audiences of 20 million in its prime-time Saturday night slot and Brucie was anointed King of the Game Show Hosts.

Perhaps the most intriguing thing about Forsyth is the manner in which he has transcended his detractors and critics. He was, for a while, a prime target for the disdainful and the snobbish. Brucie's glorious cheesiness, the oleaginous grinning, winking, soft-shoe-shuffling persona of his small-screen incarnation is easy meat for critics. So is the curious selection of toupees he is wont to wear. And as there can be only one chin like his in showbiz, it has to be assumed that Jimmy Hill borrows it whenever Bruce Forsyth doesn't need it. Whatever, Forsyth's resilience - born of sheer hard graft in the business - has paid dividends. With Strictly Come Dancing, he is back in the game big time.

As old-fashioned entertainment goes, Brucie has been there, done that. He knew he wanted to be an entertainer from the age of seven, when he used to sneak into the Edmonton Regal to watch Fred Astaire dance. His father made him a tap-dancing mat when the racket he made tap dancing on the corrugated tin roof of the family garage business became too much for the neighbours. His mother aided and abetted by making him little satin and sequinned stage outfits. He made his television debut at the age of 11 in 1938 on the Jasmine Bligh TV show and finally turned pro at the age of 14, billing himself as Boy Bruce the Mighty Atom. He danced, sang and joked his way up the Variety ladder to the stage of The Windmill Theatre and was eventually spotted by talent scouts for Val Parnell.

His ability to bounce back from near-disaster has helped him recover from catastrophes like Bruce's Big Night Out and an ill-advised venture into sitcom, Slinger's Day, in which he played a supermarket manager. It has also helped him weather three marriages and six children, and his stamina, judging by his performance on Strictly Come Dancing, is relatively undiminished. He has five daughters from his first two marriages - Debbie, Julie and Laura from his marriage, in 1953, to dancer Penny Calvert; and Charlotte and Louisa by his second wife, Anthea Redfern , who clearly gave him more than "a twirl". In 1979 he married Wilnelia Merced, a former Miss World and Miss Puerto Rico and 32 years his junior. They have an 18-year-old son, Jonathan Joseph. "The last 25 years of my life have been the best," claimed Forsyth in a recent interview. "Wilnelia is not only a beautiful woman, she is also the nicest person."

She is also, it appears, responsible for Brucie's current revival. They were watching television one night in their house in Virginia Water when Have I Got News For You came on. Legend has it that Wilnelia turned to her husband and said: "You could do that show." Consequently, Forsyth rang Paul Merton and got the gig. The jokes and the entire episode were constructed around Brucie's cheesy persona. A sophisticated, cynical audience lapped up the satirical references to his glory game-show days.

From there it was but a small step to Paul Merton's Room 101 and the acquisition of a new cool that compares with the effect that John Travolta created in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. The final proof that Forsyth was built to last lies in the fact that he is the only man to be referenced by both Peter Cook and Dudley Moore in their Derek and Clive personas and in the Saint Etienne song, "You're in a Bad Way".

Not any more he isn't.

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