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Veteran entertainer Sir Bruce Forsyth had a career spanning eight decades, in which he went from struggling variety performer to Saturday night TV stardom.
On the way, he became one of the most recognisable entertainers in the business, driven by what appeared to be inexhaustible energy.
He became synonymous with the plethora of game shows that seemed to dominate television light entertainment in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, although he often felt he had become typecast as the genial quizmaster.
And at an age when most performers would have put their feet up, his career enjoyed a huge revival with the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing.
Bruce Joseph Forsyth-Johnson was born in Edmonton, north London, on 22 February 1928.
His father owned a local garage and both his parents were Salvation Army members who sang and played music at home.
The young Bruce was a direct descendant of William Forsyth, a founder of the Royal Horticultural Society, whose name was given to the plant forsythia.
His interest in showbusiness was kindled at the age of eight and he was reportedly found tap-dancing on the flat roof after watching his first Fred Astaire film.
“As soon as I got home from school,” he recalled, “I’d take up the carpet, because there was lino underneath, and start tapping away.”
He made his stage debut at the age of 14 as Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom, appearing bottom of the bill at the Theatre Royal, Bilston.
Live entertainment was a way of escaping the pressures and dangers of wartime Britain, and there was a huge demand for acts, no matter how bad they were.
Many years later he explained his motivation on a BBC chat show. “I wanted to be famous and buy my mum a fur coat.”
Famous Forsyth catchphrases
- “I’m in charge.”
- “All right, my loves?”
- “Good game, good game!”
- “Nice to see you, to see you nice.”
- “Give us a twirl!”
- “Cuddly toy, cuddly toy!”
- “OK, dollies do your dealing.”
- “You get nothing for a pair!”
- “What do points make?”
- “Didn’t he/she do well?”
- “You’re my favourite.”
- “Keeeeep dancing!”
But there was to be no fast track to success. For the next 16 years he performed in church halls and theatres across the country, sleeping in train luggage racks and waiting for the big break.
It came in 1958, at a time when he had been unemployed for more than three months and was seriously considering giving up on showbusiness.
He was asked to present Sunday Night at the London Palladium, a televised variety show, made by Lord Grade’s ATV company for the ITV network.
He’d finally found the fame he had always craved, appearing not in front of a couple of hundred people in a theatre, but the more than 10 million who regularly tuned in to the show.
“The pubs would empty when it came on,” he told an interviewer. “We would get calls saying: ‘Can’t you start it later?'”
Originally booked for two weeks, he stayed five years, by which time he was Britain’s highest-paid entertainer, earning £1,000 a week (£18,700 in today’s money).
But he continued touring with his variety show and the strain of combining this with his Palladium appearances took a toll on his private life.
He divorced his first wife, Penny Calvert, a dancer he’d met in the theatre, and she wrote an account of her husband’s perpetual absence, called Darling, Your Dinner’s in the Dustbin.
A popular element in his Palladium show was a feature called Beat the Clock, in which contestants, egged on by Forsyth, had to complete quirky tasks as a huge clock ticked down.
The segment gave a hint of his future television role and he went on to host some of the most popular television game shows of the 1970s and 80s.
With his catchphrases of “Nice to see you, to see you nice” and “Didn’t he do well?” he reigned supreme at the helm of the BBC’s Generation Game for six years from 1971, and again at the beginning of the 1990s.
At its peak, the programme attracted 20 million viewers, who tuned in to watch Forsyth seemingly having more fun than the competitors, enthusing over the mundane prizes on the conveyor belt.
The presenter argued with his BBC managers about the show’s early evening timeslot but he eventually accepted his role as the “warm-up man” for Saturday night television.
His co-host on the show, Anthea Redfern, was each week encouraged to “give us a twirl”. The couple married in 1973 but divorced six years later.
It was on the Generation Game that he introduced his famous “thinker” pose, appearing in silhouette at the beginning of each show.
The idea came from the classic circus strongman pose, something he’d perfected during his days in variety.
He repeated his success on ITV’s Play Your Cards Right, where the audience joined in the cries of “higher” or “lower” as the contestants tried to guess the value of a series of playing cards.
Michael Grade said of him: “He knows how to get laughs out of people but it’s never cruel and he leaves their dignity intact.”
In 1995, a year after his final Generation Game appearance, he received a lifetime achievement award for variety at the British Comedy Awards and began hosting ITV’s The Price is Right.
The entertainer was, by this time, a Rolls-Royce-driving multimillionaire and married since 1983 to Wilnelia Merced, a former Miss World.
He later claimed that he regretted becoming so associated with game shows and wished he’d done more variety work on TV.
Play Your Cards Right was axed in 1999 and, with changing tastes in entertainment, his TV career began to slide.
He returned to the theatre – but experienced an unexpected revival after his wife watched an edition of the satirical quiz, Have I Got News For You, and suggested he could present the programme.
After calling show regular Paul Merton, he landed the gig and offered to be “a little bit deadpan”.
“But the team said, ‘No, be Bruce Forsyth,'” he said.
He used the occasion to parody some of his old game shows, much to the ill-disguised disgust of team captain Ian Hislop.
But the appearance led to Forsyth, an accomplished tap dancer, being offered the job of hosting Strictly Come Dancing, which began a year later.
Viewed with scepticism when it launched, the celebrity dance show became one of the most-watched programmes on TV by the time it reached its fifth series in 2007.
He brought his own brand of avuncular good humour to the proceedings – reassuring many of the contestants with the phrase “you’re my favourites”.
“His particular character and personality went a long way to making the show what it is,” said former contestant Ann Widdecombe.
But the presenter once revealed that Strictly “was never the show that I thought it would be”.
“I thought it’d be a comedy show – me getting among the contestants and showing them how to dance, and them all falling over,” he told ITV’s This Morning. “It was a different show.”
After missing a handful of episodes because of illness, he decided to “step down from the rigours” of presenting Strictly in 2014.
“But I’m not retiring,” he insisted. “That’s the last thing in the world I want to do. This isn’t Brucie walking into the sunset.”
He continued to host the Christmas and charity editions of Strictly until 2014 – all of which were taped, as opposed to live broadcasts.
Away from entertainment, Forsyth’s biggest passion was golf and he took part in many pro-celebrity tournaments.
His house was next to the course at Wentworth, where he played with many of the world’s best players, practising in the bunker in his own back garden.
During his career, Forsyth’s multiple talents and years of application sparked an enduring appeal.
In 2011 he was knighted after years of campaigning by his fans and a parliamentary Early Day Motion signed by 73 MPs.
But he suffered from ill health towards the end of his life, and in 2016 his wife revealed he still had “a bit of a problem moving”, following major surgery a year earlier.
Sir Bruce was one of the last entertainers from the tradition of music hall to be working on British television.
In many ways his act barely changed. The same corny gags, the same toothy smile and, above all, the same manic enthusiasm.
“On stage I think I’m 35,” he once said. “Working takes over my whole body and I become a younger man – that’s why I won’t stop.”
He will be particularly remembered for his ability to transform run-of-the-mill party games into glorious moments of mayhem that enthralled contestants and audiences alike.
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