Nice

Bruce Forsyth: an appreciation written for, but not used by, the Guardian

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The melodramatic phrase, “We may never see his like again,” is overused. But in this case, we have a pressing question on our hands: who will ever fill the shoes of Bruce Forsyth?

Always light on his dancer’s feet, he was the very definition of the beloved entertainer. An all-rounder, a song-and-dance man, a music-hall act (the Mighty Atom) at 14, a concert party natural during the war and a dogged veteran of summer season, club bill and panto until the London Palladium beckoned, and thereafter a household name who was barely off our TV screens for six decades. He could sing, he could tap, he could tell jokes, he could almost act (people forget that he took over Leonard Rossiter’s starring role in Thames TV’s supermarket-set sitcom Tripper’s Day in 1986, the Trollied of its time), but much more than this, he could host.

When, in 2012, “Brucie” entered the Guinness Book of Records for having the longest career of any male TV entertainer – with, at the time, only former Golden Girl Betty White to beat to the all-gender title – we were reminded that his first appearance on the box was in 1939 at London’s Radiolympia exhibition when he was 11 years old, doing the old soft-shoe on what might be considered an early draft of The X-Factor, Come and Be Televised.

The footage may be long lost, but we know that Bruce Joseph Forsyth-Johnson came and was televised. And we can assume that television liked him, because it kept on televising him until his octogenarian appearances on Strictly were the butt of a thousand affectionate jokes. (He was quipping self-effacingly about being “doddery” as far back as series six, when he was a sapling of 80.)

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Like one of those sweet granddads you see on local TV news who are still stacking shelves in B&Q with no intention of retiring, Bruce lived to work. (He even described his other passion, golf, as “masochistic”.) He was the kind of entertainer who, if he broke into a spontaneous verse of It’s Impossible and nobody heard, may as well have not have broken into it at all.

Those of my generation grew up with him. Too young for his first peak of TV ubiquity at the helm of Sunday Night at The London Palladium in the late 50s/early 60s (and, more pertinently, as adept crowd marshal of its frantic game show Beat the Clock), we clasped him to our collective bosom during his second wind at the helm of Bruce Forsyth and the Generation Game in the 70s, his household name already in the title.

The announcer called it “family fun”, and its selling point was to bring parent and sibling generations together to compete in games of guesswork, memory, vocational karaoke and physical humiliation. It’s hard to think of a more effective familial glue than the weekly edition at 6.30 on a Saturday evening. A grinning, avuncular natural with the public at a time when the public were tongue-tied and shy, he would look askance to camera or grimace offstage, saying, “We’ve got a right one here!” or “Where do you find them?” without losing a single passenger. (I remember one young contestant in less than formal attire being greeted with the off-the-cuff remark, “Did you come here on your skateboard?”)

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In the 1973 Christmas special that Generation Game staple the amateur-dramatic finale featured Frankie Howerd in Cinderella. Soaking up the studio applause on his entrance, he gestures back at Bruce, playing Buttons, and says, “Isn’t he looking old these days? No wonder they call it Snow White.” Bruce was 45, but his fuzzy mutton chops were already more salt than pepper and his fringe was well on its way over the crest of the hill. I wasn’t alone in thinking of him as an older man in the 70s than he was in the 90s.

Although the descriptive tramline wrinkles multiplied around his eyes and smile, and a moustache added gravitas, by the time he was hosting ITV’s You Bet in the late 80s, the hair was darkened and combed forward. His toupée was entertainment’s worst-kept secret, but Brucie would bristle if interviewers brought it up. He looked a lot better with it than before it.

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Poached from the BBC by ITV in the late 70s, it didn’t matter which of those two impostors had him under contract, as he always took his catchphrases with him for continuity. Whether fronting the irresistible call-and-response of Play Your Cards Right or ill-advised, voice-activated rounds of computer tennis on Bruce’s Big Night, it was always nice to see him, to see him nice. (Big Night was a rare lapse of judgement in that 76-year career, an act of network hubris that saw him take over the whole of Saturday night in the winter of discontent in 1978 and get beaten in the ratings by The Generation Game under new host Larry Grayson.)

In 1997, the year he joined the hallowed ranks of Kenneth Williams, Billy Connolly and Peter Ustinov with his own An Audience With … for LWT, he told an interviewer, “I feel death coming nearer.”

Of the all-rounders, he even outlived Ronnie Corbett. If not for Ken Dodd, he would have been the last family entertainer standing from that concert-party generation who earned their spurs on the club circuit and built empires around themselves in the voracious vacuum of telly in the 60s and 70s. But as the next wave came – Cannon & Ball, Jim Davidson, Little & Large – their forebears proved remarkably resistant and only premature death (or in Mike Yarwood’s case stage fright and alcoholism) removed them from the stage on Saturday nights.

Retiring in 2015 but never shy, Brucie ended his record-breaking career in a massive Saturday teatime blockbuster, still twinkling, still soft-shoeing, still grimacing offstage; he was surely the most resilient of them all. We had a right one here. As for a replacement in all of the fields in which Forsyth excelled – where do you find them?

 

 

 

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What if … the mechanical shark had worked in Jaws?

Another little item I wrote for Word magazine, in 2009, that I’d forgotten about (and has never been published online). I was asked to imagine a “what if?” scenario from the world of entertainment.

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May, 1974, Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts: first day of the Jaws shoot. The three life-size, $200,000 mechanical great white sharks designed by effects veteran Robert A Mattey work like a dream. The saltwater has no adverse effect on the steel rails running under the surface, the eyes and jaws look realistic and the polyurethane skin does not need constantly replacing. The rushes looks fantastic. The film comes in on time and on budget. Director Steven Spielberg and editor Verna Fields do not need to “hide” the shark: it appears, full face, in scene one, requiring no suspenseful two-note musical theme from John Williams. Jaws opens in 409 theatres in June; audiences get an initial shock on seeing the shark, but the film peaks too early. Word gets out. Box office tails off. The big studios see no quick way of making a mint in summer, and continue to indulge the left-field “movie brat” directors. Universal files for bankruptcy. A nervous Fox opens Star Wars in just 300 theatres. It becomes a minor cult. No sequel is ordered. The studios doggedly pursue the European visions of the new wave of auteurs throughout the 80s until moviemaking becomes a high-risk, low-return business and the new multiplexes are closed, leading to a minor boom in arthouses. Jaws enjoys a revival as an ironic midnight movie. In 1993, Spielberg finally gets an Emmy for Watch The Skies, a single-camera sitcom about a man in Phoenix convinced he’s seen a UFO. People who have been swimming in the sea without fear ever since have no way of describing rare shark sightings: “It was a like a scene out of … ?”

I love 1973

TA85grabI apologise for the late running of the plug for this week’s Telly Addict. I’ve been busy. At any rate, it’s been up all day, and within it, you will see my nice new haircut, a shirt I haven’t worn very often and some considered, erudite, witty reviews of – plus some controversially throwaway remarks about – the adorable 1973 John Betjeman documentary Metro-land, shown again last week on BBC4; the similarly locomotive Great British Railway Journeys with Michael Portillo on BBC2; the perhaps unfairly maligned Mr Selfridge on ITV1; the quite horrible World Without End on C4; and the return of Silent Witness to BBC1 for its 16th series! I’ve already found myself in a titanic struggle with a persistent man over at the Guardian website, should you have more time on your hands than sense. You’re more than welcome to discuss these shows here, in a friendlier environment. I always reply.

Art, house

The BFI are reissuing Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven on September 2 in a new digital restoration and it’s going out to various arthouses in the UK and Ireland (see below for details etc.). This is great news; anything that draws people to one of my favourite films of the American 70s. It’s available on DVD, in a no-frills widescreen edition that came out way back in 2001 (it doesn’t even have a title screen, never mind extras), and on Blu-Ray Region 1, if you can handle such a thing, so if you haven’t seen it, the recent release of Malick’s beguiling fifth feature, Tree Of Life, is a good enough excuse for having a look. It really is stunning. When I first saw it, years ago, I didn’t know that much about it, other than that Malick was a recluse who didn’t made another film for 20 years after Days Of Heaven, so I didn’t know what to expect.

I was less of a student of American painter Edward Hopper in those days, and although I recognised the paintings of Andrew Wyeth in Malick’s truly gorgeous endless landscapes of orange-yellow, wind-caressed wheat (not least Wyeth’s most famous work, Christina’s World), it was only when I watched Days Of Heaven again yesterday that I identified Hopper’s 1925 painting House By The Railroad in Sam Shepard’s abode, similarly placed on the horizon. [You can compare the two images above.] Malick is as much of an artist as any painter. With two cinemtographers working with him on the film – Néstor Almendros and Haskell Wexler – he obsessively painted with natural light, shooting almost exclusively during the Magic Hour between sunset and night, which casts a supernatural, God-like pink glow across landscape, humans and farm machinery. What a pain in the arse he must have been to work for. But what riches were captured.

It’s a typical 70s American movie in many ways: mumbled, episodic, esoteric, challenging, downbeat even under those heavenly red skies, lacking marquee names (Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, even Shepard, were not known in 1976 when the film was made, nor in 1978 when it was finally released), set in the past (1916) but redolent of contemporary concerns, and evidently in thrall to European cinema. And yet, for all of its recognisable stylings and tropes, Days Of Heaven sits apart from Taxi Driver, The Conversation, Nashville, Shampoo, even Heaven’s Gate with its instant similarities of tone, period and the word Heaven. Though it tells a story that’s actually quite traditional and even classical – family of three leave the city to seek work in the country and the couple end up in a love triangle with their employer and benefactor which leads to deception and ultimately, trouble – Malick tells it in a non-traditional way, employing a seemingly improvised narration from Linda Manz’s younger sister, who meditates with a child’s idealism and absolutism about heaven and hell, work and leisure, right and wrong, and through a fractured narrative not in terms of chronology (there are no flashbacks; time moves forward) but in terms of jump cuts. Scenes do not end satisfactorily; rather, they end mid-dialogue, or fade, so that we are left wondering what else will be said. It’s intriguing; we pick up bits and pieces of information, but these are not spoon fed to us. We only find out it’s 1916 when a newspaper headline is seen, two thirds of the way through (this same headline tells us we are in the Texas panhandle, which I don’t think has been established before).

There is a climactic finale, which I won’t reveal even though it’s a 30-year-old film, and which seems all the more devastating for all the stillness and beauty that’s gone before. This fits in with a lot of slow-moving, European-influenced American films from the 70s, which very often lead to death or destruction, from Bonnie & Clyde and Easy Rider onwards. There was something in the air. And there is certainly something in the air in Days Of Heaven.

I found two learned essays about the film, here and here. See if Days Of Heaven is coming to an arthouse near you in September here.

America’s last top model

I’ve been writing this week about meeting JJ Abrams, for Radio Times. You can read the feature in next week’s issue, should you wish; it’s based on an interview I did with him in May, when very few people had seen Super 8, his new family monster movie set in 1979 and produced by Steven Spielberg, to whose 70s work it seems clearly to be a tribute. (It is. It’s an explicit tribute.) But it’s the above scene – grabbed from the film’s trailer – that intrigued me the most, as it features the Aurora glow-in-the-dark model of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I was given for my ninth birthday, in 1974. Although the company has been bought and sold a number of times since its 60s heyday, the horror icon model line, licenced through Universal, seems to have endured. I grabbed this shot of the box from the internet, where many a finished model, fully and meticulously painted, also appears.

Props to Abrams for mining his own geeky, movie-obsessed childhood for detail like the Hunchback model, seen being fastidiously painted by Super 8’s lead character Joe (Joel Courtney) in a scene that beautifully encapsulates the often solitary bedroom-bound existence of the young suburban nerd. As it happens, I painted my models out in the garage, where my vast range of Humbrol enamel paints were stored, and what hours of concentrated enjoyment I gleaned doing just that. Over the ensuing years, via birthdays, and swapsies at school, I collected pretty much the whole set of Aurora Universal monsters: Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, King Kong, Godzilla, the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man. I also had Salem Witch, which didn’t seem to be from a Universal horror film, but whose bubbling cauldron of bats and eyeballs was a fond favourite.

The Aurora horror range combined two of my early childhood loves: horror movies, and making models. I would pore for hours over the Airfix catalogue, trying to plan which model I would purchase next when pocket money or present-receiving opportunity would allow. I loved sticking them together, although the greatest thrill lay at either end of the process: handling the pieces when fresh out of the box and still affixed to the plastic frame, while absorbing the instructions, and then applying the paint at the other end. It’s funny how a tiny detail about the glow-in-the-dark model became my first point of bonding with JJ Abrams, who was born a year after me. Having seen the Hunchback in the film – and with a 35-minute slot during which to win him round and get him to say interesting things into my tape recorder – I told him how much it meant to me and we were suddenly discussing the etiquette of whether or not to paint over the fluorescent parts of the model (in the Hunchback’s case, his head and his back glowed, an aspect that actually freaked me out from my bedside).

I loved my kit models. I was a member of the Airfix Modellers’ Club. I still have the membership card somewhere. And yet, “club” was a misnomer, as modelling never won me any friends, nor led to any social interaction. It wasn’t exactly a group activity.

I never think of myself as the classic nerd. I spent a lot of time with friends, climbing trees, wading through streams, playing cricket and hide-and-seek. But I do celebrate the nerdiness gene, as it gave me time to think, whether I was sat up the dining room table meticulously creating my own comics, or out in the garage adding the decals to an Airfix model of an RAF Refuelling Set. (I did actually have that. It was brilliant.) My brother and I were obsessed with catalogues, and got as much pleasure looking through them as actually ever owning any of the stuff within.

That is all. I made the schoolboy error of looking at a thread about Collings & Herrin on the Word message boards after being alerted to its existence. As usual, a number of people who I would normally expect to ally myself with, being keen Word readers, heaped abuse upon me, and one called me a “gigantic bore” for writing about the past. He can actually fuck off. I find the past endlessly fascinating, especially the way it unites us, across continents sometimes. And anyway, the future looks pretty shit to me.