ATV Icon: Bruce Forsyth

As Channel 4 recently delved into the world of a man ATV Network made a household name of – Bruce Forsyth – Michael Keohan thought it was about time we placed him in our hall of fame.

It was September 1958 when the relatively unknown to TV audiences became an overnight celebrity after taking charge of the 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.

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 with ABC Midlands.

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 Gen 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 his 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.

Brucie Bonus – Career timeline

He made his first television appearance at the age of eleven on the BBC’s Come and Be Televised in 1939. This live programme from Alexandra Palace starred Brucie just three years after regular beeb visual services began.

Bruce turned professional aged 14, taking to the stage as an all-round entertainer; dancer, singer, comedian, actor as his first advert in The Stage noted: “Bruce Forsyth: available for anything.” He was billed during his teenage years as ‘Boy Bruce: The Mighty Atom’.

Television came calling again when, aged 29, he appeared on ATV in a talent showcase for popular variety show stars.

In the same year, 1958, so impressed with his act and connection with an audience ATV boss Lew Grade brought in the ‘unknown’ Forsyth as the new host of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, a live hour-long variety show. This lead to further work with ITV including his own series The Bruce Forsyth Show and variety showcase New Look.

In 1964 he made his West End acting debut in the musical Little Me, which told the story of a fictional Hollywood acting star.

His made his big screen acting debut in 1968 alongside Julie Andrews in the movie Star. Other film roles followed including 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks which also featured Angela Landsbury.

He almost appeared in the Oliver! the musical movie as Fagin, however being the reserve actor lined up for the part he was disappointed when Ron Moody didn’t pull out of the role.

Despite never having chart success, Bruce released several albums – some serious some humorous – and pop singles too, including I’m In Charge, Coronation Street, Chin Up and I’m Backing Britain. This music venture saw him feature on Top of the Pops in 1975.

Music followed into television as he recorded the theme tune to his big BBC One hit The Generation Game. The title music Life Is The Name of the Game introduced the programme from 1971 to 1977 and a modernised version for the show from 1990 to 1994. The full theme was also released as a record.

In 1979 he tried to ‘crack America’ with his stateside one-man show on Broadway. He later hosted a game show for ABC America, Bruce Forsyth’s Hot Streak produced by the famous Reg Grundy productions.

Forsyth was always in demand to front game shows; hosting Beat The Clock (Within the Palladium show), The Generation Game, Play Your Cards Right, The Price Is Right, Didn’t They Do Well and Takeover Bid. He was lined up to front the Australian version of Play Your Cards Right but due to Equity issues was unable to work on the Aussie series.

In 1986 he featured in ITV sitcom Slinger’s Day in the title role of supermarket manager Cecil Slinger.

One of many ridiculous decisions by former ITV boss David Liddiment saw Bruce axed from ITV in 2002. He was just one in a long list of casualties at the hands of the ITV executive.

Other bad decisions included dropping News at Ten and Jeremy Beadle. Bruce made a rare public outburst about his treatment by the broadcaster.

Bruce guest-hosted Have I Got News For You which relaunched his BBC career. The same year he was offered the role as lead host on Strictly Come Dancing, which he’d continue on for nearly a decade before semi-retiring.

Michael Keohan is a radio presenter and has worked for stations including Lite FM and Capital Radio.

He also from 2008-2009 wrote a monthly personal showbiz column for ATV Today.

ATV Icons celebrate the names past and present who have given a great deal to British Culture.

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