As Channel 4 recently delved into the world of a man ATV Network made a household name of – Bruce Forsyth – we thought it was about time we placed him in our hall of fame. It was September 1958 when the relatively un-known became an overnight celebrity after taking charge of entertainment show, Sunday Night at the London Palladium.
In 1983, aged just 24, Wilnelia Merced married one of Britain’s most loved celebrity entertainers – 31 years her senior Bruce Forsyth, who was already a double divorcee.
Celebrating 68 years in show business – 52 of them on television – Wilnelia wanted to unveil the secrets of their long and highly unusual marriage, and Cutting Edge has been given unprecedented access in this intimate and revealing account of day-to-day life with a man you either love or hate, Bruce Forsyth.
Back in 1962 this is how ATV Network summed up one of their biggest stars: “In September 1958 Bruce had the novelty of being a new face to many thousands of people. True some may have seen the entertainer in one of the many provincial tours he has made, but as a television performer he was new to the viewer.
“However, just four years later it seems like Bruce has always been with us. Before hosting Sunday Night at the London Palladium his career had been one long round of hard work and heartbreak. While a teenager he took dancing lessons and by the time he left school aged 14 he was quite a seasoned entertainer. His first professional engagement turned out to be a huge flop – the touring variety show folded within its first few days. That was back in 1942.”
ATV’s publicity machine continues, “However Bruce is tough in the tradition of the struggling artiste. In 1947 having toured with an accordion band – as singer and instrument player – he joined the RAF to do his National Service.”
Following on from his stint with the RAF he joined the Windmill Theatre as a comedy act. He told ATV Network back in 1962 “The Windmill audience is the toughest on earth. They only go there to see the girls. No one wanted to know about me.”
The Windmill Theatre was where Forsyth met his first of his three wives, dancer at the venue Penny Calvert. They married in 1953, and had three children – Debbie, Julie and Laura. [Penny, Debbie and Laura pictured below right in a 1960s ATV publicity snap.]
Television work came Bruce’s way quite by accident as he told ATV Network in 1962. “I deputised for Dickie Henderson as a compare of a television show from the Prince Of Wales Theatre in London. Later another show in which I was a guest was under running and I was asked to ‘fill in’. I took my chance with both hands. When I came off they told me I had done over nine minutes, the time usually allotted to the top star.”
ATV boss Val Parnell was so impressed with Forsyth he offered the newcomer a two week stint hosting top rating ITV variety slot Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Viewers took to Bruce and his contract was extended by a further eight weeks. By the late 1960s the star had hosted many other ATV produced programmes for ITV, including Saturday Show, New Look and his own series Bruce’s Show.
In the 1970s he defected to the BBC and gave the corporation a Saturday night ratings winner with family game show, The Generation Game. After 20 years his first marriage ended, he then married his Generation Game co-star Anthea Redfern in 1973, they had two children Charlotte and Louisa before the couple divorced in 1979. Television wise the late 1970s proved to be a flop for Forsyth also.
Lured back to ITV in a big money deal his new show Big Night proved to be a big failure. Production company LWT however would later have a ratings banker with the Bruce fronted game show Play Your Cards Right. It was also the 1980s when Forsyth would meet his third wife and this is where the new Channel 4 documentary took up the Bruce Forsyth story.
The programme followed the couple on holiday in Puerto Rico and at home in their luxury mansion on the Wentworth Golf Course in Surrey. They were joined during a critical time as Bruce seemed poised to put pen to paper on what might be one of his last big showbiz contracts: the presenter role on Series 8 of Strictly Come Dancing.
Wilnelia has loved and supported him for almost three decades and has seen the best of Bruce, both on and off stage. At this point in his life, what still drives this 82-year-old TV legend to continue working and spend time away from his beloved Winnie? The film shows him one moment singing love songs to Wilnelia, and the next, sharing his reflections on life and death; cracking jokes and entertaining on camera, and then berating a security guard who he thinks almost ran his golf buggy off the road.
The cameras are with the couple in Wilnelia’s home country of Puerto Rico, where their roles are somewhat different as she, rather than her husband, is the national celebrity. Her mother recalls her initial feelings about Bruce, who was older than both Wilnelia’s parents, and the fears she had about how the marriage would be received in Puerto Rico and indeed, given Bruce’s age, how long before Wilnelia might be left on her own.
Like in any marriage, the people in it have their rituals and quirks. Back in their Surrey home, Bruce’s own routines reveal more of the off-screen Bruce: from having the same breakfast every single day, with dried fruit spaced out equidistantly on his porridge; to his strict morning exercise regime based on the Fountain of Youth book that Winnie’s mother gave him on his wedding day; and his important domestic habits such as hand-washing his shirts and socks himself.
Bruce also talked about what has made him the self-disciplined man he is, his past in the RAF and perfectionist approach to his job in the limelight. The private side of this showbiz persona is an 82-year-old grandfather who loves nothing more than spending time with the family and pottering on the golf course.