A lot of eyes rolled despairingly when London Weekend Television announced that it was reviving Sunday Night at the London Palladium - renamed Tonight at the London Palladium on account of its being somewhat sacrilegiously transmitted on Fridays - with 72-year-old Bruce Forsyth as the host.
Television increasingly makes a virtue of winding back the clock; witness, if you must, the reincarnated Randall and Hopkirk, Deceased. But to 1958? That was when the little-known Bruce Forsyth took over as compere of a show already three years old, the same age as independent television itself.
The venerable game Beat the Clock surely has as much of a place in this PlayStation age as Morris Minors and football rattles. And variety? Variety's obituaries were written years ago. The Royal Variety Performance is a drag. Yet more than eight million people tuned in last Friday to see old Brucie introducing Sting, Bobby Davro and a hula-hoop speciality act - a "spesh act" in showbiz jargon. Besides, LWT bosses already felt confident that there was a voracious appetite for variety, having received some 30,000 requests for 12,000 tickets in response to a single quarter-page ad in the giveaway London paper Metro.
I have a superior seat in the stalls for the dress rehearsal of this evening's show. Top of the bill is Harry Connick Jr, supported by, among others, Ronnie Corbett, the comedian Bradley Walsh and the obligatory spesh act, this time in the elastic shape of Anatolii Zalyevski, a contortionist from Kiev. Bradley Walsh comes over to tell me how much he reveres Brucie. How giving he is on stage with his fellow artists. Which evidently wasn't true of Tommy Trinder, the original compere of Sunday Night at the London Palladium. When Brucie himself did a guest spot on the show, circa 1957, Trinder disregarded the golden rule that the compere always enters and exits stage left, where the stage manager lurks. "So we met, which was never supposed to happen," Brucie recalls. "I hate to think that he did it to put me off."
He is minding his voice for this evening's show and asks if we can talk later. So I seek out Ronnie Corbett, who agrees that Brucie, even at 72, is "second to none" as a compere. They go back more than 40 years, back to Danny la Rue's nightclub in Hanover Square. Ronnie didn't get a break on telly until he was 36, with the coming of The Frost Report. "These days you get a series when you're 23," he says, without rancour, although he thinks a background in theatrical variety stood him and his contemporaries in very good stead. "It made us look comfortable on our feet," he says. The veteran writer Neil Shand is sitting alongside me in the stalls, in case any late tweaks are called for. He has scripted some of the Forsyth-Corbett patter, but has left the size gags to Ronnie. Apparently, showbiz convention decrees that Ronnie supplies his own size gags.
He walks on stage wearing tartan trousers, and Brucie asks why he isn't sporting a matching jacket. Because, says Ronnie, his wife told him he'd look like a Thermos flask. I laugh. It's funny. I like Chris Morris and Ali G, too; don't get me wrong. Nevertheless, I'm delighted that primetime variety is back on the box, albeit by accident, after the success two years ago of the Bruce Forsyth 70th birthday spectacular.
A few days later I drive down to Surrey, to the handsome Forsyth mansion on the Wentworth estate, erstwhile stamping ground of General Pinochet. We are already well acquainted, Brucie and I, having played golf together several times in the past. It occurs to me that having also golfed with Ronnie, Russ Abbot and Tarby, I now need only Henry Cooper to complete the set. Tarby, incidentally, followed Brucie as compere of Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Famously, he once forgot Petula Clark's name. So he introduced her as "someone who needs no introduction".
Anyway, the electronic gates sweep open and I am greeted at the front door by a housekeeper in leather trousers, which is par for the course at Wentworth. She installs me in Brucie's den. Photographs abound of him as benevolent paterfamilias, seated next to his fragrant wife, Wilnelia, his numerous children and various sons-in-law. Wilnelia, who is 32 years younger than Brucie, only recently miscarried their second child; their first, JJ, is 13. Brucie also has three daughters from his first marriage, to Penny Calvert, and two more from his second marriage, to Anthea Redfern of "Give us a twirl" immortality. Didn't he do well?
Wilnelia is the former Miss Puerto Rico and indeed Miss World. They have a house in Puerto Rico - backing on to a golf course, naturally - where they spend months at a time. In Puerto Rico, Brucie is famous only because he is married to Wilnelia. The locals know him as Mr World.
He trots in, with those familiar, hurried, slightly camp little steps, looking dapper in a grey sleeveless cardie designed to facilitate the golf swing. "Nice to see you, Brian," he says, and I resist the obvious riposte. In any case, I want to propel him back to an era when he had a quite different catchphrase. "I'm in charge," he used to say, scurrying to and fro on Beat the Clock. "The best push-and-shove man in the business," Tarby calls him, and, sure enough, the BBC's recent tribute to The Generation Game proved his infinite superiority over his successors, Larry Grayson and Jim Davidson.
Ironically, he believes that The Generation Game played a significant part in the decline of his beloved variety. "Variety suffered as people shows took over, and The Generation Game was the first people show. Everything that's happened since has been a spin-off from The Generation Game." Speaking of generations, he is content with his own. "I was born at just the right time. A little earlier and I could have been killed in the war, as my brother was. Much later and I would have missed those golden years, when television was young and exciting." He started out in show business at 14 - as Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom - so by the time he got his big break at the Palladium, aged 30, he was already an old trouper. "For years I went up and down the country doing variety," he recalls. "I was the second-spot comic, which is the hardest job in the world, the lowest form of animal life in show business."
Sometimes, he died. "I had a terrible time at the Empress, Brixton. I don't know what it is now. I hope it's a bingo hall. I hated the place."
In 1958, Val Parnell, who ran the Palladium, was looking for someone new to take over the Sunday Night show. "I was doing summer season at Babbacombe," Brucie recalls, "and some friends of mine, FranÃ§ois and Zandra, who did a novelty dancing act, persuaded Billy Marsh, an agent who worked for Bernard Delfont, to come and see me."
Marsh recommended him to Parnell, who offered him a six-week contract. Four years later, by then a household name, Brucie was still at it, hobnobbing with the likes of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Sammy Davis Jr and Nat King Cole. But never, to his regret, Frank Sinatra.
"Sinatra never worked the Palladium," he says, "and I only met him once, very briefly, when he was appearing at the Festival Hall and my daughter Julie was in a group called Guys and Dolls, who were on the bill with him. Julie introduced us in the corridor before the show. I'm sure he had his eye on her, actually. Very attractive girl, my daughter."
It used to rankle with Brucie that he came to be regarded as Mr Game Show when he could sing and dance and tinkle with the best of 'em, as indeed he did with Bob and Bing and Sammy and Nat. But these days, if Brucie has any regrets apart from the fact that his golf handicap has crept up to 12, it is that he hasn't acted in more films.
"I'd more or less got the part in a film called Candleshoe, because David Niven had turned it down. But Niven changed his mind when he found out that Jodie Foster, who was a huge star even as a child, was going to be in it. And Lionel Bart wanted me as Fagin in Oliver! when Ron Moody wasn't sure whether to do it, which would have been wonderful for me." However, Moody reviewed the situation, and that was that.
After an hour or so of chatting, Brucie informs me that he has to go upstairs for a lie-down. Recording six shows in 12 days has exhausted him. But he invites me to linger downstairs and returns after 45 minutes, intent on a round of golf. Outside, he zaps open a garage door, revealing no car, just an electric golf cart. We climb aboard, trundle down the drive, through the electronic gates and, slightly surreally, out on to the highways and byways of the Wentworth estate.
'Tonight at the London Palladium' is on ITV tonight at 8pmReuse content