Forsyth, one of Britain’s best-known gameshow hosts, fronted television programmes including “The Generation Game” and “Play Your Cards Right”. Most recently he presented dance contest “Strictly Come Dancing” for ten years until 2014.
BBC Director General Tony Hall described him as “one of the greatest entertainers our country has ever known”.
“He has delighted millions of people and defined Saturday night television for decades … his warmth and his wit were legendary,” Hall said in a statement on Twitter.
“He had a remarkable chemistry with his audience – that’s what made him such an amazing professional and why he was so loved.”
Records, it is often said, are made to be broken. But the showbiz career of Sir Bruce Forsyth – from a teenage music hall act as “Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom” to Strictly Come Dancing – will surely only be beaten if someone can achieve an even more spectacular combination of precocity, longevity and ability to adapt to new entertainment formats. Remarkably, his TV credits spanned three quarters of a century – most of the medium’s lifetime.
In 1939, the 11-year-old Bruce Forsyth-Johnson (the birth name he later shortened to save on lightbulbs outside theatres) performed a dance routine on an early BBC talent show, Come and Be Televised, broadcast live from Radiolympia in London. No recording of the performance exists, but he recalled in his final book, Strictly Bruce: Stories of My Life, that he told the host: “I want to dance like Fred Astaire, be a star and buy my mum a fur coat.”
Those ambitions had all long ago been achieved when, 75 years later, a more modern hoofing contest, Strictly Come Dancing, marked the end of his TV career. His retirement, aged 85, from the Saturday night hit was soon followed by a withdrawal from professional and public life after a series of health crises. In his last years, he liked to point out that he was surely the only living TV performer who had appeared on the medium before the second world war.
The astonishing endurance of Forsyth’s career was in some ways surprising, because the parts of his portfolio – singing, dancing, joking, acting and hosting – were all bettered by many individual practitioners of those disciplines. But the unique selling point of “Brucie” was that he could not only do a bit of everything, but keep doing it almost for ever.
The term “variety”, the theatrical tradition from which he came, refers to the range of skills offered by performers on the same bill – but Forsyth was a one-man variety bill. Tens of millions of viewers became familiar with the north London rasp of his voice and the distinctively pointy chin that he emphasised in poses such as the human question mark, with chin over raised knee, that was the traditional first sight of him on The Generation Game.
A major factor in his career was unquestioned professionalism; of the two vices most likely to destroy an entertainment career, he was relatively unaffected by egomania and never became an alcoholic. During the last of his signature gigs – as the main presenter of Strictly, a job he started at the age of 76 – he latterly admitted to spending much of the week resting in bed to preserve his energies for Saturday night.
This work ethic was present from very early on. Inspired by Fred Astaire movies at the picture house near his home in Edmonton, north London, the nine-year-old Bruce enrolled at Tilly Vernon’s dance school in nearby Tottenham. By 12, he had decided he needed a more advanced teacher, and signed up at another school in Brixton – a two-hour journey each way.
He soon became dissatisfied with this new school, too: it taught English tap dancing, while he was more interested in the flashier American method, popularised by Astaire. Flora Forsyth-Johnson, his extraordinarily supportive mother, soon found an émigré American in London’s Piccadilly Circus, who taught Bruce the Hollywood style.
Such parental devotion to the boy’s showbiz dreams may be explained by the fact that both Flora and her husband, John, a garage mechanic, were keen amateur singers and musicians. Members of the Salvation Army, they not only played in the Army band but held “variety nights” at home, in which young Bruce first danced and sang. They habitually took him to see two movies and two music hall shows every week. Enthralled by what he saw, he left school at 14 and made his professional debut, as Boy Bruce, The Mighty Atom, at the Theatre Royal, Bilston, in the West Midlands, in 1942.
Forsyth remembered this debut as a disaster – his share of the box office take was not enough for the fare home – but his career progressed to the extent that he was hired by the Windmill variety theatre. Even an interruption for postwar national service in the RAF proved propitious: ranked as a “volunteer musician”, designated by a gold harp on the sleeve, he was seconded to the concert party and perfected his piano playing. Demobbed in 1947, he was rehired by the Windmill, and subsequently remained in demand for the next 68 years.
His genius lay in what can be considered the most important trick in fronting populist TV shows – convincing viewers that you are a friend. Always gentle with contestants and warm to audiences, he hosted a major show on ITV or BBC in five successive decades: Sunday Night at the London Palladium in the 60s, followed by The Generation Game, Play Your Cards Right, The Price Is Right and Strictly. So extended was his career that he appealed to successive sets of fans as a surrogate brother, boyfriend, husband, father and ultimately grandad.
Although his most famous catchphrase – “Nice to see you, to see you nice!” – could be regarded as an example of the generally low ambition of his patter, it also cleverly planted twice at the start of each show the quality that fans most frequently cite as the key to his appeal: niceness.
The story goes that the publishers of Bruce: My Autobiography, panicked by the lack of scandal in the expensively purchased manuscript, took Forsyth through a checklist of possible addictions, controversies and other dark secrets. None struck gold. His only obvious vice seemed to be serial matrimony but, even in that area, he managed to remain on reasonable terms with two ex-wives, Penny Calvert and Anthea Redfern, and maintained good relations with his six children. There was notable mutual devotion in his 34-year final marriage to his third wife, Wilnelia Merced, always “Winnie” to him, a former Miss World whom he had met when employed to judge a later contest alongside her.
But, while the nice that viewers saw broadly reflected the nice he was, there were occasional hints of something else. Certainly, Forsyth sometimes had a tense relationship with tabloid showbiz editors, who regarded his preference for being interviewed by broadsheet publications as a sign of snobbery and taking himself seriously. The entertainer’s preferred image was also challenged in 2010 by perhaps the most bizarre entry on Forsyth’s TV CV: Living With Brucie, a Channel 4 documentary filmed in Puerto Rico, the homeland of Winnie.
She had been keen on the project, which was ostensibly a portrait of a former Miss World, but the camera inevitably homed in on her husband, who was presented as melancholy, tetchy and obsessive. In one scene, Forsyth showed how his breakfast blueberries had to be arranged in the same shape every morning and, elsewhere, bitched about his golfing companions. These may have been emphases created in editing, but the film hinted at the perfectionism and determination that had sustained a seven-decade career.
There were also scars, amid the successes that straddled two centuries and millennia, from two high-profile failures. In 1978, Michael Grade, director of programmes at London Weekend Television and a longtime admirer of Forsyth, tempted the entertainer to leave the BBC and The Generation Game to anchor Bruce Forsyth’s Big Night. For the first – and, it turned out, last – time on British TV, the whole of Saturday night primetime was turned over to a single presenter, with Forsyth a sort of televisual version of a music hall compere, introducing sitcoms and hosting gameshows. The history of TV, though, has often shown that audiences are more drawn to programmes than people – and the concept flopped.
Grade, pained by the rare bad press Forsyth suffered, gave him the consolation prize of Play Your Cards Right in 1980, which went so well that Forsyth was exported to California in 1986 to make another card-based gameshow called Bruce Forsyth’s Hot Streak. Ever since the 1950s and 60s, introducing US stars at the Palladium, Forsyth had dreamed of becoming a guest star in Hollywood and on Broadway, but US TV audiences were puzzled by his accent and his failure to have chin reduction surgery.
Hot Streak was not renewed for a second season, so the presenter had to settle for being very big in Britain. But failure to break America remained an admitted regret and, for an ITV arts show called Perspectives in 2014, he revealingly chose to profile Sammy Davis Jr, a US entertainer referenced several times in his memoirs, to whom he seems to have regarded himself as a Surrey shadow.
By the late 1990s, and his 70th birthday, Forsyth seemed to be heading for the rejection suffered by most older entertainers, even one who, through rigorous personal regimes, had kept his waistline and hairline much as they had been 50 years previously.
But, extraordinarily, he again reversed the gravitational force that afflicts most acts. Forsyth was championed by younger performers who loved him on TV in the 70s and 80s – Frank Skinner, Jonathan Ross, Paul Merton – with Merton, in 2003, helping to secure Brucie the chairman’s seat on Have I Got News For You? In one startling segment, the host sent up one of his best-known shows, with Play Your Iraqi Cards Right, using a US propaganda weapon in which the faces of Saddam Hussein’s high command were printed on a deck of cards.
It was unclear if Forsyth understood quite how daringly tasteless this stunt was, but he delivered the satirical script with his usual efficiency and gained another wave of fame that put him in the frame when, the following year, BBC1 was casting a remake of the old ballroom show Come Dancing.
Strictly gave him a final ratings-topping hit which he presented for a decade, still showing the fast feet of a trained dancer, although there was intermittent criticism of struggles to read the Autocue and a reliance on jokes older than he was.
As a wealthy entertainer who lived by a golf course, Forsyth was assumed to be a Conservative, although his political interventions were infrequent and, in one case, bizarre. In 1968, he supported – and recorded a single for – the “I’m Backing Britain!” campaign, which, with cross-party support, sought to revive the British economy by persuading workers to volunteer to work a half day for no pay. Brucie’s own pro bono contribution, the record, failed to make the charts. Less contentiously, at least in England, in the summer of 2014, his family roots (the Forsyths descended from a Scottish botanist) encouraged him to sign a multi-celebrity letter to a newspaper, warning against independence for Scotland.
To the regret of many friends and colleagues, he had to wait until 2011, at the age of 83, to receive the knighthood many newspapers had been erroneously conferring on him for years. It may be significant that the arising of Sir Brucie followed nominations and Facebook campaigns becoming a recognised element of the honours system, harnessing the fondness the public had always felt for him.
The establishment’s resistance to elevation until then probably came from a combination of snobbery about a song-and-dance man, his decision to skip the English winters for Puerto Rico (although not a tax exile), and the fact that his efforts for charity were less ostentatious than others who knelt under the royal sword earlier but, in some notorious cases, are now disgraced.
Although future generations are unlikely to repeat Forsyth’s material, his influence is palpable. The current masters of Saturday night TV, Ant & Dec, seem to have studied Brucie before constructing their shtick of deliberately bad jokes, durable catchphrases and jokey poses. Nice-guy comedians such as Michael McIntyre and Peter Kay, aiming their acts at whole families, also look to be in his debt.
One consequence of Bruce’s fragility after vascular surgery in late 2015 was that he was unable to attend the memorial service of his friend, Sir Terry Wogan, and had already announced that he would be too unwell to go to this summer’s tribute to another beloved chum, Ronnie Corbett. The celebration of the life of Sir Bruce Forsyth, when it comes, will honour a showbusiness career of a length, dedication and achievement unlikely ever to be equalled.
Bruce Forsyth’s childhood tag of The Mighty Atom may now sound naff – but there was something genuinely mighty in the way the boy performer went on to defy the physics of showbiz for seven and a half decades.