Farewell Bruce Forsyth, the last of the BBC's great entertainers

Michael Hogan
Bruce Forsyth - Julian Simmonds

Good game, good game. Didn’t he do well? Sir Bruce Forsyth had a glittering 75-year showbiz career but with news of his passing aged 89, we have lost the last of the BBC's great entertainers - and a reassuringly familiar figure who you, me and the entire nation has huddled around the TV to watch for the past half-century.

From Sunday Night At The London Palladium to Saturday night favourites The Generation Game and Strictly Come Dancing, Brue Forsyth has been a near-constant presence in post-war British sitting rooms. He symbolised warm, cosy family entertainment and brought Britain together. When Brucey was on-screen, all was well with the world. 

My own earliest memories of Brucey are watching him presiding over The Generation Game's climactic conveyor belt round. Panicked contestants would desperately try to remember the prizes while me, my brother and mother all shouted "Fondue set! Decanter! Cuddly toy! Teasmaid!" at the screen, dissolving into giggles when Brucey conspiratorially rolled his eyes to camera.

Appearing on Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1961. Credit: ITV/Rex Features

Come Monday in the school playground, me and my friends would compete to see who could do the best Brucey impression: chins jutting out, mumbly noises made, catchphrases recited and poses struck.

In adulthood, as this newspaper's Strictly Come Dancing correspondent, I have spent endless hours sitting in the Elstree Studios ballroom with stiff legs and a sore bottom - but with Brucey to keep me company, I rarely minded. 

During lulls in filming, he was in his element - regaling the studio audience with song and plucking female members from the crowd for a twinkle-toed twirl around the dancefloor. Strictly recordings can run to many hours but he tirelessly jollied them along and prevented punters from getting restless. He was a consummate master of ceremonies.

He's one of those rare celebrities that can be recognised from a facial gesture or referred to by his first name - that's how ingrained he is in our psyches. Brucey has been there throughout out lives. A twinkly TV uncle to the nation. 

On the set of Play Your Cards Right in 1981. Credit: Rex Features

The amply-chinned, much-adored old stager was a grandee from the golden age. Morecambe, Wise and the Two Ronnies  - the other TV light entertainment totems of my childhood - had already gone to the great green room in the sky, leaving Forsyth as the last of a breed. I felt a twinge of sadness on Friday afternoon as the curtain came down on Sir Brucey too. 

If showbiz is in the blood, then it certainly coursed through the veins of Bruce Joseph Forsyth-Johnson, who made his first TV appearance aged 11 and his professional stage debut three years later as “Boy Bruce, The Mighty Atom”.

 

Alongside his good friend Sammy Davis Jr. on the set of The Sammy Davis Jr TV Special in 1980. Credit: Mike Stephens/Central Press/Getty Images

He got his big broadcasting break in 1958, compèring ITV's Sunday Night at the London Palladium. Variety was his natural metier. There was always something winningly old-fashioned about Forsyth. He merely wanted to entertain and took infectious delight in doing so.  Whether it was with tap shoes,  a crooned  jazz standard or  a  groan-worthy gag didn’t matter. 

Throughout the Seventies, of course, he hosted The Generation Game, one of the decade’s defining shows. With its daft games and Forsyth’s sharp patter - equally amusing to housewives like my mother and schoolboys like me - it attracted huge audiences of 21m. Typically, he also wrote and sang the show’s fiendishly hummable theme tune, ”Life is the Name of the Game”.

This was followed in the Eighties by a string of hit gameshows including Play Your Cards Right, You Bet and The Price Is Right - the mere titles of which are enough to transport me back to my teens. Forsyth hosted these shamelessly cheesy affairs with the perfect blend of gravitas, irony and razzmatazz - expertly building tension, before glancing down the camera to let us in on the joke. 

With co-host Tess Daly celebrating the finale of Strictly Come Dancing in 2012. Credit: Guy Levy/BBC/PA Wire 

After a decade off our screens, he popped up in 2003 as guest host on Have I Got News For You, gamely overseeing a spoof quiz show segment called Play Your Iraqi Cards Right. This appearance, greeted with a warm wave of acclaim and misty-eyed affection from those of us who had missed him, revived his career. 

The following year, BBC bosses picked him to helm the debut series of Strictly Come Dancing, alongside co-host Tess Daly. Thanks in no small part to Brucey's showmanship - cracking painful puns with a knowing glint, taking no nonsense from the judges and telling numerous contestants “You’re my favourite” - this seemingly risky commission was an immediate smash hit. It remains one of the BBC’s biggest franchises and restored Forsyth to his rightful position as a crowd-pleasing, family-friendly Mr Saturday Night. 

It was sheer joy to have him back. Saturdays felt like Saturdays again. All I needed was a Wagon Wheel and a glass of Nesquik for a full Proustian rush.

Receiving his OBE in characteristic Brucie style in 2011. Credit: Ian Jones

In 2012, Guinness World Records recognised him as having the longest TV career of any male entertainer. Brucey retired from live show duties in 2014, graciously passing the glittery baton to Claudia Winkleman. After 10 years and 11 series, it was time to hang up his bowtie but he still returned for pre-recorded Strictly specials, in aid of Children In Need or at Christmas. 

Indeed, Brucey graced our screens in some form on 25 December for more than 40 years – a feat beaten only by the Queen. It’s a measure of how he's part of our cultural DNA. I hesitate to deploy the over-used term “national treasure” but in Forsyth’s case, it fits. 

Farewell then, Uncle Brucey. It was always nice to see you, to see you nice. And wherever you are: keeeeeep dancing.

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