Britain was in mourning yesterday when it was announced that one of its most iconic showbiz names, Sir Bruce Forsyth, had died at the age of 89. Sir Bruce was one of the last old-school entertainers – an all-rounder he could dance, sing, act and, most importantly, entertain. He was a man who knew how to have audiences eating out of the palm of his hands, and the audiences loved him. Now, after his sad death, we look back on his incredible career.
A young Bruce was always fascinated with showbusiness. He first appeared on TV in 1939, aged 11, on the to-the-point Come and Be Televised, and he made his stage debut at the age of 14 as Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom. Live entertainment was a method of escaping from the pressures and the dangers of wartime Britain and the post-wat period, and there was a huge demand for acts (no matter what quality). It was here that Brucie developed the rapport with an audience that would help define his career.
In 1958, he was asked to present Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and found the fame he craved, with audiences of more than 10 million regularly tuning in to watch the show. His talent for improvising and ad-libbing saw him become Britain’s highest-paid entertainer at the time, earning £1000 a week (roughly £18,700 in today’s money).
One of the key elements of the show was a segment called ‘Beat the Clock,’ which saw contestants race to complete tasks against a giant clock on-stage. Perhaps this was a precursor for the next stage of his career – hosting some of the most popular gameshows of the 1970s and 80s.
With some of the catchphrases he had developed, including ‘nice to see you, to see you nice,’ he took the helm of the BBC’s The Generation Game in 1971, hosting for six years (and again at the start of the 90s, for 10 years in total). At its peak, the show attracted 20 million viewers, and was part of the BBC’s iconic Saturday night line-up, which also featured Doctor Who, The Morecambe and Wise Show and Parkinson.
He later moved to ITV and repeated his success on Play Your Cards Right, which saw the audience join in with cries of ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ as the contestants tried to guess the value of a series of playing cards. He would host the show for an incredible 14 years, before moving on to The Price Is Right. In all this, he also found time for a few films, such as Star! (1968) and Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks, alongside Angela Lansbury (1971).
Changing tastes in entertainment saw Brucie’s TV career struggle as it entered the 21st century. He left The Generation Game in 1995, and Play Your Cards Right was axed in 1999. He returned to the theatre for a while, but experienced an unexpected revival in 2003. His wife had watched an episode of Have I Got News For You, and suggested he could host the show. He landed the gig, and his reception led to him being offered the chance to host a new BBC programme called Strictly Come Dancing.
Launched in 2004, the show was viewed with scepticism, but it had become one of the most watched programmes on TV by the time it reached its fifth series in 2007, and this was in no small part down to Brucie’s good-humoured hosting style. The show also received a boost when, after years of campaigning from fans, Brucie received his knighthood in 2011. The pressures of illness began to hit him, though, and after having missed a couple of episodes, he decided to step down from the show in 2014.
Despite his insistence that he was not retiring, Sir Bruce stepped away from public life and struggled with ill health. Even so, his lasting legacy will that of a performer with almost inexhaustible energy. He could take the most mundane of formats and with his easy charisma, he could transform them into must-watch television. He was the last of the variety hall entertainers, a master of prime-time television and the man who really brought light entertainment to screen.
Didn’t he do well?