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