“Arms flapping like a provoked penguin, a chin that practically invites you to shake it by the hand and a grin that dares you to keep glum when he’s around, every inch of him the life-and-soul of the party”: that’s how Radio Times described Bruce Forsyth in 1971.
By this point in his career, Forsyth was a well-established, much-admired, sometimes-ridiculed star of the small screen, with five decades in showbiz stretching out ahead of him. But sparkling showbiz careers can have banal beginnings.
Take Forsyth’s first Radio Times mention. It’s hardly his name in shining lights: here he is in the TV listing for the 8.35pm Variety Parade, printed small alongside entertainers we’d soon forget (Tommy Jover, Johnny Brandon) and one other we’d remember: Barbara Windsor, of all people.
Yet he’d already come a very long way to reach this milestone.
Born Bruce Joseph Forsyth Johnson in 1928, he was known as Spider Johnson growing up because of his “quite long legs” – an asset in a game of football. His parents ran a garage in Edmonton, but Brucie was set on showbiz from the start, “worshipping” Fred Astaire.
So Spider Johnson put down his football boots, picked up his tap shoes and went off to dance lessons. “Not many little boys went in for dancing in those days, so I had to use the little girls’ changing room,” he told Radio Times decades later. “Very embarrassed I was, and my mother used to hold out her coat while I changed.”
Forsyth left school at the age of 14 and signed up with a show in Birmingham, where he was billed as “Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom.” Too young to serve in the Second World War, he spent the early 40s playing the ukulele and tap dancing and singing and getting by. Peace came, but nothing much changed: Forsyth still slogged away at vaudeville, giving out prizes like tea caddies and rolling pins and dreaming of the big time.
And then, finally, it started to happen.
In 1958, four years after that first appearance on TV, Forsyth got his big TV break. He took over the compere job on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, a show with national television coverage which put him on the bill with Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Jr and gave him a brand-new following.
BBC show Beat the Clock followed, where Forsyth developed a reputation for bantering with contestants. Little Boy Bruce with his dreams of stardom had made it.
The first time Forsyth’s unmistakable grin graced the cover of Radio Times magazine was in 1965.
There he is in black and white at the tender age of 37, with a toothy smile and a thin face, his hairline receding and laughter lines already embedded around his eyes. The cover announces the arrival of The Bruce Forsyth Show on Christmas Eve, featuring dancing and miming from the “versatile entertainer”.
The highlight of the first show was Forsyth in a James Bond ballet duet with Goldfinger star Aleta Morrison, “the girl with the longest legs in show business.” Sadly no footage survives, so readers will have to make do with the mental image of what on earth that looked like. The show was a hit, and Forsyth was in demand – popping up everywhere from Cilla to The Morecambe & Wise Show.
But a career as long as Forsyth’s naturally has peaks and troughs. Radio Times caught him in 1971 after a bad patch, as he painted his face backstage and prepared to perform for a roomful of “greying couples” at the Bournemouth seaside.
“It’s strange,” he said, “But I haven’t even played golf well for the last two years. Only now I’m beginning to find my form again.” A good golf game is a sign of mental tranquility and a bad game is a sign of a worried mind, he reckoned.
His golf game must have improved a lot over the next few years. His new Saturday night game show Generation Game was a success, giving him six years on prime time TV. Advertising for participants for series two, he was upbeat: “It will be nice to see you – to see you nice!” he wrote. “Tell us all about yourself and send us a photo. You never know – you might not get the elbow!”
Just a year after his RT interview in that forlorn-sounding dressing room, Forsyth was back on top of the world. He grew sideburns and smiled some more. “I’m Bruce, dear, when people meet me. Very rarely Mr Forsyth, much as I’ve tried over the years! People regard me as a mate, I suppose. Yes, that’s it – a mate. And that’s nice, very nice,” he told Radio Times as he sipped a mug of instant coffee.
He had honed the catchphrases that people would remember for decades: “Didn’t she do well?” “Take a look at the old scoreboard” – and, well, we all know the rest.
He was, apparently, in his element. His Kensington flat was oatmeal pink, a giant teddy bear in the corner, a Rolls Royce outside. He was enjoying the recognition, explaining: “You just have to learn to accept it and enjoy it and not let yourself be hung-up about it.”
Perplexingly, he also posed semi-naked and covered up with a picture of a fish to represent his star sign. Nice to sea you, to sea you nice? “I’m nosey – it’s my Pisces character,” he said, explaining his choice of car: “I like to sit high up in the Rolls looking down to see what’s going on in traffic jams.”
But this sunny interview doesn’t tell the full story.
The vague line “for several years he has been separated from wife and daughters” glosses over what was going on in his private life. In 1973 he and his wife of 20 years, Penny Calvert, divorced after a long separation – and in the same year he married his Generation Game co-star Anthea Redfern.
In 1976 the Generation Game host and hostess appeared together on the cover of Radio Times, chilling out at home in cardigans and groovy shirts and looking very cosy. They were already halfway through their marriage, though perhaps they didn’t know it yet. “Like everyone else I’ve had dramas through my life. Not only personal-wise but drama-wise, business-wise. These things happen,” he said. “But I’ve always been a lucky person because I can switch off and work. I’m glad about that.”
Here was an entertainer who could put people at ease with his patter, a skill that attracted an audience of 25 million to The Generation Game on Christmas Day that year. But was it an act? “When people see me perform they think I look like a person who can never relax. But if I sit down I can turn off the Bruce Forsyth who is the vitamin pill on legs,” he said. At the same time, he didn’t want to sit still for long, he admitted: those legs would begin to twitch.
By this time Forsyth was firmly embedded as a TV legend. He spent the 80s hosting the ITV game show Play Your Cards Right, and had a stint in America on Bruce Forsyth’s Hot Streak. He was in the sitcom Slinger’s Day, hosted You Bet! And had a flop with the game show Hollywood Or Bust (it was a bust).
He also found time to marry his third (and final) wife, the former Miss World Wilnelia Merced, and produced a son to join his five older daughters. Later he’d say: “She is my soul mate and I feel so lucky to have met her when I did, for the last part of my life.”
Then came the 90s, and the return of Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game (“a super success”), and Takeover Bid, and even more “atrocious puns and finely balanced insults”. Second wife Anthea Redfern was absent from the line-up and there was a new hostess in town. Now in his 60s and after 50 years in showbiz, Forsyth grew a wide moustache that only accentuated his famous grin.
But getting older didn’t mean becoming complacent. “I think it went well,” he told Radio Times after recording an Easter special in 1991. “I say that as a bit of a worrier. I’m always furious with myself if I miss something. And I’ve got older, I’ve become more picky – especially about myself.” He also reflected on his skills as a comedian: “I know how to get a laugh, how to time it. But if you ask me to tell a joke now, I couldn’t. I don’t remember a million jokes.”
Forsyth appeared to be relaxing into his old age. “I like to be down-to-earth, an ordinary person, enjoying my home, my children, playing golf, going to Spain or Puerto Rico where my darling wife comes from,” he said as he drank his tea and ate his toasted teacakes.
He also seemed to be nearing the end of a long and illustrious career by the turn of the millennium. Sure, he was a hit when he hosted Have I Got News for You in 2003, and he was proud of it, too. (“After HIGNFY, people realised I could hold my own with satirical humour. I can adapt. They said, ‘He isn’t past it.’”)
But when he joined Michael Parkinson on his final BBC1 chat-show in 2004, Radio Times remarked somewhat sniffily that the show “doesn’t exactly have an A-list line-up.”
Still, the man who had once called himself a “vitamin pill on legs” was about to become a household name all over again, because looming on the horizon was a sequined juggernaut: Strictly Come Dancing. “Strictly changed everything,” he said in 2010 – and that’s no exaggeration.
When Strictly launched in 2004, no one knew it would become the BBC’s flagship show: huge ratings, lots of glitter, top names, international success, endless press coverage. But as Strictly co-host, Forsyth was “right back in fashion”, Radio Times declared. The man himself promised to show audiences what he could do: “People think of me only as a game-show host, but there’s much more to me than that.”
He wasn’t joking: a year later and Forsyth was in the ascendant. “No other TV personality has meant so much to so many people over so long a period,” Radio Times declared. The verdict: he had “worked his magic yet again” on Strictly.
The magazine sent Jeremy Vine to interview Forsyth in 2007, eight years before Vine himself made his debut as a contestant. The two got along pretty well, although Vine seemed perplexed when his interviewee rejected both champagne and biscuits in favour of a sachet of vitamin powder: “maybe this is why Bruce Forsyth has made it to 80… he’s taken care.”
Despite his earlier enthusiasm for game shows, this older Forsyth looked back at his career with a critical eye. “I regret doing too many game shows,” he told Vine. “I wish I’d done more serious light entertainment shows. I could act, I was musical, I could have done a situation comedy that really meant something.” In a later interview, he revealed another regret: he was second in line for the part of Fagin in Oliver, but missed out. The role went on to earn Ron Moody an Oscar.
Not that he’d take any of it back. “Every ten years another generation has grown up with me on TV,” he said. “That’s the secret of my longevity. People know me, like you do, from when you were six, but there are older people who remember me from the Palladium.” And there are younger people who will remember him from Strictly Come Dancing, the cap on a TV career that spanned seven decades.
As the years wore on, Forsyth always had a comeback for anyone who dared suggest he was past it. “According to the press I’ve been leaving ever since I started – ‘He can’t do another, he’s looking tired’,” the Strictly host complained in 2010 as he geared up for the eighth series. “Which is why I did a catchphrase, for one series only, ‘I am not doddery, doddery I am not’.”
He added: “I’m sure one morning I’ll wake and think, ‘Is this worth it?’ That’s bound to happen, but at the moment when I walk onto the floor, or when I talk into a camera, something happens. I just work. Vanity? We’re all vain.”
Forsyth was also gunning for a knighthood, but he wasn’t optimistic: “Go back as far as you like and comedic people are thought of as buffoons you don’t take seriously. If they realised how much harder it is to get a laugh than say a straight line in a play, or sing a pop song, they might reconsider, but it’s a tricky business.”
Luckily the coveted knighthood finally came the following year in the Queen’s birthday honours. Arise Sir Bruce! “You must have been entertaining us for a long time,” the Queen apparently told her new knight when she met him. He reported: “We had a good laugh about that.”
But by 2013, people were starting to suggest that Sir Bruce’s best-before date had arrived. Having faced criticism throughout his career and brushed it off with a laugh, now it was really starting to get to him.
“How many newsreaders do you see every morning making a little slip-up? How many? It happens all the time,” he said in an interview where he railed against his critics. “If anybody is doing anything live, it’s going to happen – but of course, with it being me, and being 85, they call me a silly old fool. Any excuse.”
But press speculation about his retirement was finally correct, because after the 2013 series Forsyth stepped down, handing over to Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman. Still he kept one foot in the door with the Christmas specials, and in 2015 posed in top hat and tails for a Radio Times column so he could set the record straight.
“At this point, there is something important I would like to make clear,” he wrote. “Much has been written over recent months about how I supposedly did not enjoy my time on Strictly. That is absolutely incorrect.
“The point I was trying to make was that when I first started on Strictly it was difficult for me because I had to learn a new craft. I was being asked to do something I had never done before in my career – to be just a presenter.” And it was hard, because with all the strict timings there wasn’t space for Brucie to ad-lib or chat with the public, but “I like to think I made it work.”
The month that interview was published, Forsyth suffered a fall – and doctors found two life-threatening aneurysms which required keyhole surgery. This was followed by another fall, and a long spell in hospital, and a chest infection. The great entertainer stepped away from the screen to be with his wife, six children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
In 1972, Radio Times wrote: “When the time comes for Bruce Forsyth to make his last stage exit, his final soft-shoe-shuffle will have all that Savile Row elegance, all that Fred Astaire style and grace, and all his own saucy, matey good humour.” Those words came decades too soon, but they couldn’t be more apt.