Ir­re­press­ible en­ter­tainer who de­lighted mil­lions with shows such as Strictly and The Gen­er­a­tion Game

The Daily Telegraph - - Front page -

SIR BRUCE FORSYTH, the co­me­dian and game show host who has died aged 89, was one of the most en­dur­ing stars of Bri­tish tele­vi­sion; in shows such as The Gen­er­a­tion Game and his late­ca­reer tri­umph, Strictly Come Dancing, his ir­re­press­ible, slightly camp en­thu­si­asm won over mil­lions of view­ers and made him a ex­em­plar of whole­some fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment.

Forsyth was quick-wit­ted, a coiner of in­stantly recog­nis­able catch­phrases, com­fort­ably – and some­how be­nignly – in­sult­ing to his au­di­ences, and ca­pa­ble of per­suad­ing peo­ple that, how­ever ridicu­lous the busi­ness in hand, it was all good, clean fun.

To crit­ics and in­tel­lec­tual snobs who claimed that the BBC’S Gen­er­a­tion Game, with its con­veyor belt of prizes (“an elec­tric tea­maker … a mi­cro­scope out­fit”) and messy prac­ti­cal con­tests, made fools of peo­ple, he replied: “I see how peo­ple feel after the show – they’re full of ela­tion. They’ll re­mem­ber that night for the rest of their lives.”

Forsyth’s great strength was that he was never afraid to look ab­surd. Few would have got away with his fa­mous pose par­o­dy­ing Rodin’s sculp­ture The Thinker. He was not only happy to be the “king of corn”, he was demon­stra­bly proud of it. Lat­terly, as the host of Strictly Come Dancing, his re­cy­cling of an­tique jokes and ex­trav­a­gant ban­ter with the panel of judges was so ex­u­ber­ant that one could not help but laugh.

Yet de­spite be­com­ing by the time of Strictly a well-liked na­tional fig­ure who was, as he put it, “the most im­por­tant game show host on tele­vi­sion”, Forsyth went through a pe­riod of mid-ca­reer frus­tra­tion, when he was des­per­ate for the kind of global pop­u­lar­ity en­joyed by his hero Sammy Davis Jr.

The Gen­er­a­tion Game, which he be­gan host­ing in 1971 (he also sang the theme song, Life is the name of the game), was supremely suc­cess­ful, with, at its most pop­u­lar, view­ing fig­ures of 26 mil­lion. After seven se­ries, how­ever, Forsyth de­cided to leave the BBC, and his ca­reer be­gan to re­sem­ble a moral­ity tale about over-am­bi­tion.

In 1978 he starred in The Trav­el­ling Mu­sic Show (a West End mu­si­cal based loosely on the New­ley/bricusse part­ner­ship), but it flopped. He then made an ex­pen­sive se­ries of va­ri­ety spe­cials for LWT (de­signed to com­pete with The Gen­er­a­tion Game, now pre­sented by Larry Grayson) called Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night, which plum­meted down the rat­ings from 9.5 mil­lion view­ers to four mil­lion in only two months.

In his search for in­ter­na­tional fame, he al­lowed him­self to be per­suaded into a se­ries of spec­tac­u­lars in the United States called Bruce on Broad­way. But Amer­i­cans had not heard of him, and could not un­der­stand why he kept say­ing “Nice to see you – to see you nice”.

The show re­ceived poor re­views, one critic de­scrib­ing Forsyth’s “manic per­for­mance” as “like watch­ing Uriah Heep on speed”. An Amer­i­can ver­sion of The Gen­er­a­tion Game was taken off the air in 1981 after only eight weeks. His at­tempt to break into Australian tele­vi­sion in 1983 with the show also failed to take off.

The pres­sure be­gan to tell. In 1979, after the un­suc­cess­ful Broad­way show, Forsyth’s sec­ond marriage broke up and he re­turned to host­ing game shows. Crit­ics no­ticed a change in his per­for­mance: where he had pre­vi­ously been “cheeky, cheer­ful and en­thu­si­as­tic”, he now ap­peared “haunted, ag­gres­sive and frus­trated”.

By the late 1980s Forsyth was liv­ing in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity in what he de­scribed as his “re­tire­ment home” on the Costa del Sol. He had mar­ried again; his third wife, Wil­nelia Merced, a Puerto Ri­can, had won the Miss World ti­tle in 1975 and was 25 years his ju­nior. Forsyth was spend­ing most of his time, he said, play­ing golf and “re­lax­ing on a sunbed”. He con­tin­ued to host game shows through­out the 1990s, but in 2004 his ca­reer would be spec­tac­u­larly re­vi­talised when, after an ap­pear­ance on Have I Got News for You, he was asked by the BBC to present their new Satur­day night “pro­celebrity” ball­room-dancing show,

Strictly Come Dancing. By now 76, he jumped at the chance, co-host­ing with the stat­uesque blonde for­mer model, Tess Daly.

Their perky chem­istry made for en­ter­tain­ing view­ing and Strictly reg­u­larly at­tracted 10 mil­lion view­ers. Forsyth found a new fam­ily au­di­ence and a fresh gen­er­a­tion of younger fans who would watch the show be­fore a night out. Once again view­ers were treated to his el­e­gant lit­tle shoe shuf­fles and mildly risqué asides (“Mind you …” he would be­gin, be­fore a com­ment which would ex­cite, but not of­fend). “Steady on, Bru­cie,” Tess Daly would ad­mon­ish, if he twirled her a lit­tle too en­er­get­i­cally.

Live per­for­mances every Satur­day night were, Forsyth ad­mit­ted, “very, very stren­u­ous”, and after 11 se­ries he an­nounced that he was leav­ing Strictly, in fu­ture to ap­pear only in one-off spe­cials. It was, he said, “a beau­ti­ful, lovely show” and he re­vealed that when he told Tess Daly about his im­mi­nent de­par­ture he had felt “like a boyfriend break­ing up with his girl”.

Bruce Joseph Forsyth John­son was born in Ed­mon­ton, north Lon­don, on Fe­bru­ary 22 1928, the youngest son of a garage owner, and was ed­u­cated at the Latymer School. Both his par­ents were mem­bers of the Sal­va­tion Army, but it was when they took their seven-year-old son to a pan­tomime at the Wood Green Odeon that his “love affair with show­busi­ness” be­gan. He ac­tu­ally stopped the show with a ren­der­ing of I Lift Up My Fin­ger and I Say Tweet, Tweet.

Aged 10 he was trav­el­ling two hours a day to at­tend tap-dancing lessons, and at 14 he left school to tour with a con­cert party. Billed as “Boy Bruce, The Mighty Atom”, he wore a se­quin­cov­ered suit (“made by my mum”) and did an act as a bell­boy who, hav­ing car­ried var­i­ous bags on­stage, opened them and played a ukulele, an ac­cor­dion and did a tap rou­tine. “The show closed after a week,” he re­called. “I had to wire home for my train fare.”

After seven years of tour­ing with va­ri­ety acts, Forsyth got his break at the Wind­mill The­atre in 1947. He later said that at his au­di­tion he be­gan his planned rou­tine of “a few jokes, a cou­ple of songs and a bit of hoof­ing” but was stopped half way through his first num­ber by Vi­vian Van Damm, who shouted: “Next!”

Bruce was so an­gry at this in­ter­rup­tion that he in­sisted on con­tin­u­ing. The pi­anist stopped play­ing, but Forsyth the young hope­ful ploughed on through his act un­til he got to the end. The fol­low­ing day he was told he had the job of sec­ond spot comic at the Wind­mill, where he was to re­main for two years.

In 1951, after two years’ Na­tional Ser­vice in the RAF, Forsyth gave him­self five years to be­come fa­mous. “I didn’t want to be a frus­trated old pro,” he re­mem­bered. “Luck­ily I got the job at the Pal­la­dium with only a year of my five left.”

That was in 1955, when he took over from Tommy Trinder as com­père of the hugely pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion va­ri­ety show Sun­day Night at the Lon­don

Pal­la­dium. Forsyth was an even greater hit with au­di­ences, who liked his some­what bad­ger­ing style. The show com­prised comics, dancers, a big star and Beat The Clock, a game for mem­bers of the au­di­ence in which the com­peti­tors had to per­form var­i­ous ab­surd tasks while be­ing heck­led by the host.

It was dur­ing these shows at the Pal­la­dium that Forsyth in­tro­duced three catch­phrases that stayed with him through­out his ca­reer: “I’m in charge”; “Nice to see you – to see you nice”; and “Didn’t he do well?” When Sun­day Night at the Lon­don

Pal­la­dium came to an end in 1965, Forsyth starred in his own tele­vi­sion show, which in turn led to The

Gen­er­a­tion Game. Dur­ing the mak­ing of the se­ries he be­gan to gain a rep­u­ta­tion as some­thing of a prima donna, one crew mem­ber com­plain­ing: “If some­body asks him some­thing and he thinks it’s unim­por­tant, we all suf­fer.”

He be­came in­creas­ingly su­per­sti­tious, con­fess­ing that be­fore he went in front of the cam­eras he would sort through pack­ets of boiled sweets, throw­ing away all the green ones: “I never eat the green ones be­fore a show.” He also be­gan to prac­tise a form of med­i­ta­tion be­fore every per­for­mance.

As he hit his for­ties he also branched out into act­ing, turn­ing up in a clus­ter of light mu­si­cal films, no­tably Robert Wise’s Star!, about the ac­tress Gertrude Lawrence, with Julie An­drews; the Anthony New­ley ve­hi­cle Can Heirony­mus Merkin Ever For­get Mercy Humppe and Find True Hap­pi­ness? (1969); and Dis­ney’s

Bed­knobs and Broom­sticks (1971). He also ap­peared in The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven

Deadly Sins (1971), a quickly for­got­ten low-bud­get com­edy di­rected by Gra­ham Stark and fea­tur­ing cameos from vir­tu­ally every Bri­tish comic per­former of the era.

In 1973, hav­ing di­vorced his first wife, Penny Calvert, he mar­ried Anthea Red­fern, his “host­ess” on The

Gen­er­a­tion Game, whom he met at a “Miss Lovely Legs con­test”. She noted her new hus­band’s per­fec­tion­ism: “When we were first mar­ried he wouldn’t let me wash any of his clothes in case I didn’t do it right. The cuffs of his shirts had to be smoothed in a spe­cial way with the thumbs while still wet; he washed ev­ery­thing him­self by hand. I re­mem­ber think­ing, what am I get­ting into?” The marriage was dis­solved in 1982.

By this time, de­spite var­i­ous set­backs, Forsyth was still show­ing the bound­less en­ergy that had made his pre­vi­ous game shows so en­gag­ing and suc­cess­ful. By 1983 he had his glam­orous third wife – who was the same age as his daugh­ter – and had be­gun to sport an ill-dis­guised toupee.

He be­came the butt of jokes by Jimmy Tar­buck and Bob Monkhouse, who mocked the age dif­fer­ence be­tween the Forsyths: “Bru­cie has to go to bed early these days to get his wife up for school the next day” was one ex­am­ple.

After sev­eral years of pre­sent­ing

Play Your Cards Right on ITV he re­turned for a third time to the United States in 1986 with an­other new game show, called Bruce Forsyth’s Hot Streak, but dur­ing in­ter­views to pro­mote the show (which was soon taken off the air) he was con­fronted by the same te­dious pre­oc­cu­pa­tions: pre­sen­ters were more in­ter­ested in the age dif­fer­ence be­tween him and his wife.

By 1990 he was back on Bri­tish tele­vi­sion screens in a low-bud­get ve­hi­cle called Takeover Bid. The ob­ject of this game was for con­tes­tants to win prizes and then to have them taken away by other con­tes­tants (“I’ll bid my mu­si­cal toi­let roll holder for his Ron­ald Rea­gan pup­pet, Bruce”). De­spite ex­hort­ing the au­di­ence to “be greedy, we want you to be mean and nasty”, Forsyth soft­ened the blow when con­tes­tants lost their gifts – the un­lucky losers went home with a “Bru­cie Bonus, out of my own pocket”.

In his six­ties, Forsyth ap­peared to go into over­drive, host­ing, among other pro­grammes, You Bet! for ITV (198890) and Bruce’s Price Is Right (ITV, 1995-2001), as well as a re­vived

Gen­er­a­tion Game on the BBC (199095). In 2000 he com­pèred Tonight at

the Lon­don Pal­la­dium, based on the show’s orig­i­nal for­mat.

In 1975 he was named the Va­ri­ety Club Show­busi­ness Per­son­al­ity of the Year. He re­ceived a Royal Tele­vi­sion So­ci­ety Life­time Achieve­ment Award in 2009, and in 2013 was in­cluded in the Guin­ness Book of Records as the male tele­vi­sion en­ter­tainer with the long­est on-screen ca­reer, span­ning 72 years. He pub­lished an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy in 2001, fol­lowed in 2015 by Strictly

Bruce, a fur­ther vol­ume of mem­oirs. He was ap­pointed OBE in 1998, ad­vanced to CBE in 2006, and knighted in 2011.

Forsyth pre­sented Strictly Come

Dancing well into his eight­ies; it was said that he kept fit thanks to a daily half-hour regime of Ti­betan stretches and a flask of Com­plan which he kept back­stage. In 2015 he un­der­went key­hole surgery after doc­tors dis­cov­ered he had two aneurysms fol­low­ing a fall at his home.

Bruce Forsyth had three daugh­ters from his first marriage and two from his sec­ond. With his third wife, Wil­nelia, he had a son.

Sir Bruce Forsyth, born Fe­bru­ary 22 1928, died Au­gust 18 2017

Forsyth: ‘I see how peo­ple feel after the show – they’re full of ela­tion. They’ll re­mem­ber that night for the rest of their lives’

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