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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Keeping up appearance fees

ACFilm24Apr11receptionbWhen you see somebody talking on the telly, do you assume they have been paid? You are right to. Unless they are a member of the public whose opinion or testimony has been sought by a news crew, or an audience member doorstepped by the host on an audience show, or they are questioned in a news studio as a representative of either a political party or a private company, then they will usually be paid an appearance fee.

This will be nominal, but it covers their time and their expertise, and reflects the fact that – like an actor in a drama, or a singer or dancer in a chorus – they have helped to make a TV programme, and without them there would be a person-shaped gap, which will never do. TV programmes have budgets, and from those budgets, fees for actors, singers, dancers or contributors are found. (It goes without saying that there are many, sometimes hundreds of people you don’t see on the telly who are just as vital to the making of the programme, and they will be paid too, but this will effectively be a non-appearance fee.)

However, it ain’t necessarily so. Because James Gandolfini sadly died, I was contacted yesterday morning, by email – via the Guardian as it happens – by a broadcaster who requested my presence on a live studio discussion about Gandolfini, to take place at 4pm yesterday afternoon. Having just gathered my thoughts sufficiently to write a blog and be filmed for the Guardian video obituary, I felt confident I could make a good contribution to this show.

However, having agreed on principle with the producer to be at the studio for 4pm (which just happened to be geographically between the British Library, where I was writing, and 6 Music, where I was headed for an appearance on Roundtable, so it was all awfully convenient and meant to be), I was then told, “It’s not actually our policy to pay guests.”

Without wishing to come across as some kind of bread-head, I rather insisted that I would expect some recompense for my time and expertise, and after a couple more emails, during which the producer went to their editor and came back, we hit an impasse, at which the producer said, “We’re going to have to go with someone else.” This meant somebody who didn’t require paying. Fair enough. I had pushed for payment and they’d called my bluff. To be honest, it was one less extra thing to think about. I am currently writing a second draft of a pilot sitcom script to a deadline after all, and I’m being paid for that.

Having worked for 25 years in the media, I would say I have a realistic view of my own importance. I do not delude myself. But I do believe the mileage on my clock gives me a degree of authority and I like to think I can string a sentence together on a good day. I cannot build a wall or fix a radiator but I can talk. A tradesperson is rightly seen as someone who is paid for their time and expertise. If you can plaster a wall yourself, you have no need to call in a plasterer; if you can’t, you must expect to pay them for the work, and they must be expected to do that work to a certain standard in return.

I once entered some provisional talks with a small, independent publisher about publishing my “selected works” in a book. It never happened, but I had a title: Punctual. I have always been proud to be reliable, to write to length, and to deadline, to turn up on time, and to call ahead if unable to do so. These boring qualities go a long way in showbiz. (I have heard of certain performers who are apparently a nightmare to work with, but you have to be pretty bloody good at your job to get away with this.) I have never fooled myself into thinking I’m some kind of literary, verbal or televisual genius, to whose door broadcasters will constantly be beating a path.

Now, if I had accepted the no-fee and given my two penn’orth to the broadcaster today at 4pm, here’s what would have happened:

  1. My face would have been on the telly.
  2. Some people might have seen it.
  3. The whole thing would have lasted a matter of minutes (which, when you build in the travel at either end, plus the buffer of some green-room waiting time, makes the appearance a tiny percentage of the time and effort expended).
  4. The broadcaster might have used me again in the future and on that occasion maybe even paid me.

Also, I suspect, if you’d seen it, you would have assumed I’d been paid. But I wouldn’t have. It would have been voluntary work, except not voluntary work for a worthy cause.

I declined, politely. So I wasn’t on. I kind of wonder who was? But it doesn’t matter. The world kept on turning. But what right does a broadcaster ie. employer or client, have not to pay for honest work? Every TV show you watch will probably have interns working, often unpaid, on the first rung of a TV career, but that is their decision, and a time-investment in exchange for “work experience”, which can be invaluable. Also, you get free coffee and get to work on a TV programme. Me? I’m 48. I don’t care about free coffee and I’ve seen hundreds of TV programmes being made. I have written some of them, and been in some of them. I no longer need the work experience.

Richard used to take the piss out of me for screen-grabbing my occasional TV appearances, but these are my work. I don’t have a library of tapes, but I do have some grabs. Plus, they’re fun to look back at.

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I didn’t get paid to be on Mastermind, of course – my appearance fee went to charity. Typically, they paid for my train fares. This is weird only when no fee is forthcoming. The broadcaster who wouldn’t pay my fee yesterday offered a car there and back. What a waste of money. It’s nearly always easier, and quicker, to get about London on public transport. Why would I want to be in a slow-moving car? Think of all the money they could save by not running a private car hire service. Pay contributors with that instead!

So, what else could I hope to gain from a brief, unpaid slot on a news programme? An ego boost? Those who still think I am on the telly all the time as a pundit or “talking head” may assume I have some need to be seen in pubic. I don’t. I may once have been excited by it. But not any more. This is why I have consciously scaled back on the frequency with which I say “yes” when asked to appear on stuff. Because my mobile number is on some general BBC contributors’ list somewhere, and I haven’t changed it for a long time, I am called up by researchers looking comments all the time. I decline almost all of these requests, as I find they take up more time than they are worth in nominal appearance fees. (When I used to write books, I would appear on anything in order to promote them – you do not expect a fee in this instance.)

If I was on the staff of the Guardian, or Radio Times, I might happily be ferried to a TV studio for an hour or two, just to get out of the office, but I’m not on the staff of anything. (I explained this to the producer who wanted to not pay me yesterday, so there was no confusion.)

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It’s a burning issue in the media. Barney Hoskyns, the august music scribe and curator of Rock’s Back Pages, has started a campaign for media freelancers called Stop Working For Free, whose Facebook page is here. (I can’t access it as I’m not a Facebook member, but you might be.) While people with “proper” jobs might think that media work is cushy and “a laugh” – which to a degree it can be – it is still work: a case of time taken and effort and expertise expended, both of which should by rights be recompensed, by verbal or written agreement with the employer. I’ve complained before about how much free work – “on spec” – you must do as a writer, and how many meetings you must attend for no financial return or “call-out fee”. You accept this as part of the world you work in. But exploitation is never far round the corner, as Barney’s manifesto makes plain:

STOP WORKING FOR FREE.
Calling all freelance content providers (musicians, writers, actors, photographers, designers etc): Join me in WITHDRAWING UNPAID LABOUR from the creative and media industries. The exploitation of freelance content providers has gone on too long, and we are all responsible for letting it happen.

Things have got much worse in the digital age, of course, where images and words are shared around as if nobody is responsible for them. (Hey, I write a blog; I bet at some point I have used a photo that an agency, and therefore a photographer, should be paid for. I do my best not to, but it’s a wild west, isn’t it?) As a creative person who gives a lot of writing away for free – which is my choice – I feel I am on the moral high ground, but there’s a lot of grey here.

I would be interested to hear from people in and outside this weird industry. How do you feel about anybody working for nothing?

In the meantime I’ll leave you with more of Barney’s stirring words:

If you allow yourself to be seduced by the myth that your unpaid labour will “look good on your CV” (or equivalent blah), please try to see that you jeopardise not only the welfare of your replaceable elders but your OWN long-term economic future. You set up a paradigm whereby you in turn become replaceable.

Don’t stop believing

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We don’t know if Tony Soprano died. Let’s say he didn’t. Last seen eating dinner with his family in a local New Jersey diner to the chosen tune of Don’t Stop Believin’ in the aftermath of a mob war, he saw a man enter the restroom, his daughter Meadow arrive, at which he looked up and the screen went to black for ten seconds before the final credits rolled. We had no reason to think that Tony Soprano died, having watched him move like a bulletproof Buick through 87 hours of supreme television fiction over six years. He was a big man but he was in bad shape; you could outrun him, but he would catch you in the end.

We had Tony Soprano down as indestructible, immortal, qualities we probably bestowed upon James Gandolfini the actor who played him, and who has died of a heart attack, in Italy, aged just 51. Much discussion has taken place about the final scene of The Sopranos. I reviewed the final episode here. But now that Gandolfini has reached his season finale, we might remind ourselves of that Journey lyric.

Working hard to get my fill,
Everybody wants a thrill
Payin’ anything to roll the dice,
Just one more time
Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on

If there is a TV Valhalla, some marbled hall where only the medium’s immortals congregate, we can be certain that Tony Soprano, as played by James Gandolfini, is already among those Gods, taking his bulky place between JR Ewing, Hawkeye Pierce, Homer Simpson and The Fonz (and if that sounds facetious, it’s anything but). Clearly, Tony would never have existed without creator David Chase, but Gandolfini literally put flesh on those bones. A generous helping of flesh.

What’s most haunting in the immediate aftermath of Gandolfini’s passing is the way we listened to him breathe for all those years, that nasal wheeze increasing when Tony was stressed, a signal sent from deep within his workings that all was not smooth. The laboured breathing was a key facet of Tony’s character; he was not a man you could easily knock over, but he was mortal, always. If he stopped breathing, we would know about it.

Heavy set when The Sopranos made him a household name – within about ten minutes of the first episode starting, possibly from his first walk down that drive – Gandolfini’s skill and presence had already been noticed by the talent-spotters among us for supporting parts in films like True Romance, Crimson Tide, 8mm and Fallen. In movie parlance these were “character” parts. He was not a “leading man”, by dint of his shape. He carried an awful lot of weight, but this was required on the voyage of Tony Soprano, as the mob boss and family man seemed to be carrying all the trouble in the world on what looked like a gone-to-seed ex-prizefighter’s frame, as if, again, those burdens were made flesh.

We lived through those panic attacks with him, so full-blooded and corporeal was Gandolfini’s acting, as delicate and nuanced as he seemed bulky and unyielding. Gandolfini built him up but nobody could knock him down. There is little in TV’s great history to match it. It was Michael Corleone’s wife Kay who, in The Godfather Part III, uttered the devastating line, “I dread you.” We all dreaded Tony Soprano, and yet could not take our eyes off him, week after week, year after year. His temper was on a hair’s trigger, a Tasmanian Devil’s dervish of violence nearly always preceded by a grin, or a squint of death.

Gandolfini’s features were set like tiny pebbles on a vast beach of a face, but what complex emotions he could rearrange them into. It’s a commonplace to say that an actor inhabits a character. Gandolfini was a sitting tenant. He was just as much Tony Soprano when disconsolately peeling slices of bresola off the greaseproof paper at that monolithic fridge as when meting out rough justice to some insubordinate on the pavement with a staple gun or his ham-like fists.

It was a masterstroke of storytelling to have Tony’s entire arc prefigured by the flight of some ducks from his swimming pool, but rewatch that early sequence again and see how much wordless pathos and existential fear Gandolfini builds in, that bowling ball face shifting from simple delight to mortal terror. The dressing gown, the flip flops, the vest, the bowling shirts, these were his sartorial tics, but they alone did not maketh the man. In Tony Soprano, Gandolfini found immortality, all the more remarkable for doing so from the rarefied outfield of cable television. His face was not beamed into every American home like Hawkeye’s or Kramer’s or Archie Bunker’s or Mary Tyler Moore’s. It’s rare that an actor gives himself over so fully to a fictional construct, but Gandolfini did that.

Thanks to the medium that made him, he will never leave us.

ACSopranosgrabPS: I was pleased to be able to articulate some of the same feelings for this Guardian video obit, also featuring Andrew Pulver on his films, which we shot this morning.

26 seconds of fame

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I was, of course, flattered to be asked to contribute to BBC2’s Richard Briers: A Tribute. Having appeared on it, and seen it, I now I wish I hadn’t.

I was sad when he died, of emphysema, aged 79, last month, and although I’ve tended away from “talking head” work these past couple of years, I was caught unawares by the request and actually decided it would be nice to be able to pay tribute to one of my favourite sitcom actors. (At least it wasn’t a list show, and it was on BBC2 on Easter Saturday.)

I grew up with The Good Life, and still consider Ever Decreasing Circles to be one of the all-time best British sitcoms, and the producers of the tribute seemed keen to prime me to talk about some of Briers’ lesser-known work, which I was distantly au fait with, such as The Other One, the barely remembered sitcom he made after The Good Life with Michael Gambon in which he played a compulsive liar, and If You See God, Tell Him from 1993, darker still. As requested, I also did my homework about his films – Hamlet, Frankenstein – and refreshed my memory about Roobarb via YouTube.

On Tuesday 19 March, I duly turned up at the Gore Hotel in Kensington at 2.30 for filming, in a good black shirt and pinstriped jacket for the occasion, and was led to the basement bar, all leather armchairs, gilt, wood panels, stained-glass and oppressive furnishings, a not uncommon type of location for such jobs. Usual drill: bag down, mobile off, exchange greetings with the cameraman and soundman, ask for coffee, sit in the designated chair arranged at an angle from the camera line opposite the chair where the producer will sit and prompt with questions. I’ve done this a million times before.

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Actually, not quite a million, but enough to have become a joke. In that first flush of clips shows, I never really minded being known for my “talking head” work. (It forms a chapter in my third book, That’s Me In The Corner, which begins with an audition I once had for some presenting work where the producer said to me, “I really like your talking head work”, a compliment I struggled to take seriously.) My old partner Stuart Maconie is the one who, along with Kate Thornton, became shorthand for “talking head”. The joke was: I did way more than he did, but he rose to prominence on I Love The 70s, which really relied on its “heads”, and because he was a natural at pithy reminiscence and witty soundbites, he made the edit more often than others.

I didn’t get the chance to pithily reminisce until I Love The 80s, and then only made the first three shows, after which I was not asked back. But I had my revenge by agreeing to every other “talking head” job thrown my way. They were fun, they were easy, they paid. And that’s it, really. If you check my IMDb entry, under “Self – TV” (just scroll past the two erroneous entries for “Actor – TV”, which I’ve attempted to get removed to no avail), you’ll find 36 entries, most of which are “talking head” gigs. The first, according to the great oracle that is often wrong, was Solo Spice for C4 in 2001 – a colourful look at the Spice Girls’ solo work. I think my status as “former Q editor” qualified me. After this, and I Love The 80s, there was no stopping my head from talking.

On BBC3’s The Most Annoying TV Programmes We Love to Hate, I claimed – for the record – to have appeared on 37 such shows (IMDb is not definitive) and announced that this would be my last. Soon after, I appeared on Heroes Unmasked. It was sort of a metatextual joke.

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The next few years – during which I was also an author, a 6 Music DJ, the writer of Grass and Not Going Out, and the host of Banter and The Day The Music Died on R2 and R4, all of which were way more important to me than my “talking head” work – were a blur of hotel bars and private clubs, talking at an angle to every TV producer and researcher in British television, and often meeting the same sound engineers and camera operators.

One job led to another. I turned a couple down – including one that appeared to be built around slagging off Noel Edmonds; I’ve always preferred to celebrate stuff – and there was one about the Muppets where I didn’t even make the edit once, which is an existentially challenging experience – but by and large, it was nice for my Mum and Dad to be able to see me on telly occasionally and I genuinely think it’s good to “keep your hand in”. If you talk as part of your job, it’s as well to practice.

I seem to have done around 40 list/clips/nostalgia/popular history shows over 13 years, but most of those before 2008, which seemed to act as kind of semi-retirement year. As I say, I’ve slowed down a lot. Maybe less clips shows are made. Maybe I don’t get asked. I surfed the wave for a while there. It’s fine. But the Briers show reminded me why I shouldn’t bother any more.

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I sat in that armchair for the best part of an hour, talking constantly about every aspect of Richard Briers’ career. I knew the show was geared around the people who knew him and worked with him, as it bloody should do, and I guessed my job was to add a critical eye. (I never met him, or worked with him.) When we reached the end of his career, we wrapped, I got up, collected my bag, shook hands and left. The thought of playing even a peripheral part in the BBC’s official memorial to a great actor was reward enough, although I got paid as well. (This is still quite handy when you do as much work on spec, for free, as I do. I’m doing a lot of that currently.)

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So, I watched the finished show over Easter weekend on BBC2 and found out precisely how peripheral I was! The programme makers had done brilliantly with their star witnesses: Penelope Keith, Felicity Kendal, Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Wilton, Peter Egan, Nicholas Hytner, Sam West, Prunella Scales, Sheila Hancock … as a viewer, I was thrilled. As the token critic who’d taken part, my heart sank. About half an hour in, it was clear that my contribution was not required. To be honest, I have no idea why they even left in my sole contribution, but there it was, at 38.02.

During the section about Briers’ unexpected move into Shakespeare at a stage in his career when his national sitcom treasure status might have been a curse as much as a blessing, there I am, “writer and broadcaster”, saying the following two sentences:

Kenneth Branagh definitely changed Richard Briers’ life, by offering these, er, fantastic Shakespearean parts … It’s easy to overlook the skills of an actor in a sitcom – wrong to, but it’s easy to do it, because they make it look easy, they’re just there to be silly, and funny, a lot of the time. That takes a massive amount of acting.

At 38.28, cut to the much better placed actor Adrian Scarborough, “co-star and friend”, with a far more personal insight. I’m not saying it wasn’t worth me travelling to Kensington and walking from the Tube to the hotel and back (they offered cabs, but I nearly always refuse cabs, as I’d seriously rather use public transport and walk), I’m saying it wasn’t worth the BBC employing me to go all that way in order to say those two sentences. Hey, I know, that’s the way documentaries are made: shoot way more than you need and edit into shape. The writer Andrew Marshall was on quite a few times, and offered sound, firsthand testimony, as he’d co-written If You See God, Tell Him. But If You See God, Tell Him was never mentioned, thus muddying his authority to all but comedy students. The edit takes no prisoners!

The Briers tribute is a really nice programme, and it’s still on iPlayer. You should watch it – it’s my last “talking head” appearance*. I’m glad my shirt and jacket looked smart.

*It probably is, anyway.