Last Friday we lost one of our great Knights of Entertainment, Sir Bruce Forsyth. Many of the wonderful heartfelt tributes that flooded in after the announcement of his death referred to him as the “King of Saturday Night Television”. Of that there is no doubt; his small-screen career encompassed an astonishing 75 years and earned him a place in the "Guinness Book of Records". But although most of our memories are filled with his game-show antics and inimitable catchphrases there was much more to this star who was loved and respected by all ages, by fellow performers and the public alike.
Despite his early television appearance, in 1939 at the age of 11, his wasn’t an instant rise to stardom. The fledgling entertainer’s first performance in the television studio featured a song and tap-dance routine and demonstrated his abundance of talent and ambition. He declared: “I want to become a famous dancer like Fred Astaire and buy my mum a fur coat.”
Astaire was his idol and, as with so many entertainers of his generation (Eric Morecambe springs to mind) Bruce’s mum was a guiding force in her son’s success. She saw his potential early on, took him to tap-dancing classes and sewed sequins on his costumes. By the age of 14 he had turned professional and launched himself on the variety circuit, initially known as “Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom”. He later acknowledged that it was tough and described some of the venues as “hellholes”. But, like all the entertainers who served their time on the variety circuit, it was the finest apprenticeship in the world. The veterans of variety are a timeless testament to its worth in the world of entertainment. (We have an interview with one of these stalwart stars, the new Knight of Knotty Ash, Sir Ken Dodd, in Evergreen’s winter issue, which will be published on 22nd November - click here to order.)
It wasn’t until 1958, that Bruce hit the big time hosting “Sunday Night at the London Palladium”. Sadly his beloved mum had died just before his lucky break. But, after that appearance, her son was on his way and, over successive generations, his television triumphs continued with shows including “The Generation Game”, “Play Your Cards Right”, “You Bet!”, “The Price is Right” and, most recently, "Have I Got News for You" and “Strictly Come Dancing”. As audiences we laughed and loved them all - the contestants, celebrities and those catchphrases – but we also marvelled at Bruce’s ability to present a show and entertain us at the same time. He cared about contestants and supported them, but there was no denying who was the star. Yet this superlative skill as a television and game-show host perhaps overshadowed his other achievements.
How many of us knew, for instance, that he starred in a West End musical – “Little Me” in 1964 – and earned plaudits from the critics as he took on the challenge of playing seven characters in one show? “The Times” said he deserved “the honours of the evening” for his multiple performances. Stage success led to a role alongside Julie Andrews in the Oscar-nominated film “Star!”, in 1968. She played the actress Gertrude Lawrence and Bruce played her father. As well as writing and singing the theme tune to “The Generation Game”, he also recorded several other songs and even took the title role in a 1980s sit-com “Slinger’s Day”. He once said he'd like to have done more acting.
Like "Strictly’s" twinkling glitterball, his career shone throughout the decades, and his talents could fill "The Generation Game" conveyor belt many times over. But reading all the tributes to him, from friends and colleagues in the world of entertainment, it’s clear that fame never overshadowed his genuine warmth and generosity as a person. As his dear friend Jimmy Tarbuck said: “He was the best all round entertainer we ever had. I salute him, I’ve admired him and I enjoyed him as a friend.”
"Keep dancing!" Bruce, you were always our favourite and we’ll never forget you.