In 1955 Radio Times put Come Dancing on its cover – one of the first television series ever to be granted the accolade. I doubt anyone thought that more than half a century later the show would still be topping the ratings, albeit in another guise. And I’m absolutely sure no one thought Bruce Forsyth – at that point hoofing away as a song-and-dance man at the Bristol Hippodrome – would be its host 58 years later.
Television shows have a natural saturation point – close to an eternity, like Corrie, or sooner, like The Generation Game when it had nowhere to go. In the end, the public decides. All you know when you’re commissioning is what stands no chance of working and get rid of those. For the others, you hire the best performers and let the viewers judge. But Bruce Forsyth is one performer who has no saturation point.
Bruce defies television gravity. I can’t think of anyone else who appeals to three generations. How does he do it? Well, he’s skilful, for a start, very generous with other performers, his material is always family – I don’t think he’s told a blue joke in his life – and when he’s working with the public he knows the line between having a bit of fun with someone and humiliating them. When we see him we really do think – nice to see you, Brucie.
When I came back to the BBC in 2004 as chairman, I had nothing to do with programme-making at all. We’d arranged to have lunch. Bruce said, “I hate to do this to you, but the set of Strictly isn’t really working for me. I’m too far away from the audience. Can you have a word?” I said I’d pass it on, but couldn’t issue any edicts. But they did change it; he was right.
In 1955 my uncle Lew and Val Parnell launched Sunday Night at the London Palladium. The host, Tommy Trinder, had to leave and my late agency partner Billy Marsh happened to be in Torquay with some of his artists. One Sunday he went to Babbacombe – not a number one date on the summer circuit.
On a Sunday back then you couldn’t use props, sketches or costumes. Billy saw Bruce doing games and audience participation and just keeping the show going for two hours. He set about persuading Lew and Val that this was the man who could do Sunday Night. They’d never heard of him, but eventually they relented. The rest is history.
Bruce asked me to make a speech at his 80th birthday. Rather carelessly I said he’d been discovered performing on Babbacombe beach. He leapt up to say it was a proper theatre... half-cross, half very funny, and five minutes of terrific off-the-cuff material.
I don’t think the public will ever tire of Bruce. In the end, he will know when the time has come to make the perfect exit. I hope that won’t be for years. Whenever he does choose to retire, his place in the history of broadcasting – and in the affections of the public – will be assured.
Strictly Come Dancing is on tonight at 7:00pm on BBC1.