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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God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen. The national anthem has its two primary wishes, assuming you believe that a supreme being, more supreme than a ruling monarch, played a hand in her long life of nobility. The British monarch, Elizabeth II according to the list of numerical monarchs stretching back to Alfred the Great who reigned between the years 871 and 899 at a time when Greatness was more enshrined and objective, is 90 years old today. That’s a good age. She should be applauded for reaching 90 and to apparently be in such good shape, both physically and mentally.

I feel pleased for anyone who makes it past 70 without succumbing to debilitating disease or the need to be hooked up to machines. Queen Elizabeth II seems not to be an evil person. She likes horses and dogs, so she can’t be all bad. Some would say she has “given” her life, or much of it, to her subjects, which is us. But it’s not a job she applied for. She was promoted from within the family firm, and given little choice in the matter. I would be gracious enough to say that she adapted well to her duties. I would also argue that it’s a lot easier to get to 90 if you don’t have to worry about anything. Few of us, her subjects, get to live a life that is all laid out for us by other people, where we don’t have to squeeze our own toothpaste out of its tube if we don’t feel like it, and are essentially on holiday all year round, in the sense that we are often abroad, and in transit, but without the faff of having to book, or wait around. It must be nice not to have to worry about money. I would guess that money worries are the number one cause of stress – and stress-related illness – in our society. To literally never have to worry about where the next penny is coming from is most people’s idea of a good life. The Queen has lived that life for 90 years.

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On the occasion of her 90th birthday, the BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell (or “poor old Nicholas Witchell”, to give him his full title) interviewed her second eldest grandson, Prince Harry’s brother William, who is second in line to the throne. Witchell did so with the usual, required deference of commoners in the presence of the royals, and asked Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, what “sort of king” he thought he would be. If I had been called upon to ask Prince William this question, I fear I would have been unable not to burst into maniacal laughter at the very thought of asking a 33-year-old man about becoming “a king.” I watch Game Of Thrones, and I am captivated by the complex issues of succession in its interlocking kingdoms, a world of kings, princes, princesses and masters of coin. I am captivated because it is fiction. There are, by my finger-count, 42 monarchies in the real world, the one that we live in, in the 21st century, although quite a lot of them are “ruled” by the same royal family, our one. That’s because there was once a British Empire, “ruled” by Queen Victoria for the most part. Queen Elizabeth is, excuse my maths, the great, great, great granddaughter of Queen Victoria. This is all she had to be, to get the job of a lifetime, for a lifetime.

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All of this bothers me. I live on a small island, which once commanded a huge chunk of the globe through the might of its trading power and the modernity of its arms. By the time I was born, less than ten years after Elizabeth was crowned Queen, this Empire was pretty much done. The flag had been lowered in most of its former colonies as independence started to seem like a better and more modern option. I saw Hong Kong handed back on the news. There are still some dependencies and protectorates dotted around; they’re the ones that keep getting namechecked in news stories about tax evasion. And Australia and New Zealand. At least Australia’s citizens had a vote on whether or not to keep the Queen in 1999, when around 55% of them said yes, and 45% said no. You kind of have to abide by this. I have never been able to vote on the same matter, and I doubt I ever will. I have to abide by that. But I don’t have to like it.

Victoria Wood, a talented woman loved by millions who had the same first name as the Queen’s great, great, great grandmother (I think), died yesterday after a short battle with cancer. She was 62. This would be a tragedy for anyone, but it’s one that touched those of us who’d never met Victoria Wood but saw her on the television, and merited headline news. The Queen has already lived 28 years longer than her, possibly because she never had to squeeze her own toothpaste out of its tube or run to a departure lounge. Today’s national newspapers found themselves with a dilemma. Because Victoria Wood, who got where she did through sheer force of talent and will, and possibly sacrifice, was clearly beloved, the non-republican newspapers had to squeeze their carefully planned Queen’s 90th birthday celebrations into half a front page or less to accommodate the inconvenient death of an adored public figure.

This adjustment was its own testament to the popularity of one woman, versus the perceived popularity of another (although few tabloids can resist a “battle” with cancer). We witnessed a rare ray of commonsense amid what feels like hysteria about a person’s birthday – or one of their birthdays. The Queen’s ability to procreate, and for her children to procreate, and for their children to procreate, is presented as an achievement almost magical in its exceptionalism. Look at the apparently left-leaning Daily Mirror‘s front cover and try to keep your dinner down.

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The queen is known as “Gan Gan” to her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This might be sweet within the family, in private, but it feels over-familiar and inappropriate out in the public glare. By definition it infantalises us all, her subjects. The Daily Mirror can’t call her “Gan Gan”. Off with their heads, I say.

All of this shows how far we haven’t come as a nation. The death of Princes Diana, the Queen’s daughter-in-law, was supposed to change things forever. But it changed very little, except our national aversion to expressing our feelings or having a cry in public, which is seemingly a thing of the past. Queens, princesses, princes and masters of coin ought too to be things of the past. In my humble opinion. (That final qualification was for anyone on social media who thinks that opinions have to be declared, for fear of those opinions being read as objective, legislative fact, even if they are typed next to a small picture of your head and your name.)

Off with my head.

 

 

 

Thinking allowed

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It was announced that David Bowie had died, aged 69, at around 6.45am. I found out, as is the usual way of things now, via social media. I logged on to Twitter at around 7.15 and the first tweet I saw was by Gavin Hogg, which had been retweeted by Nige Tassell. I didn’t, at first, get it.

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So I scrolled down and confirmed it. This was devastating news, not least in light of the fact that we bought his new album yesterday, and purchased the recent Mojo with him on the cover, to have a good read about the making of said album (and of Scary Monsters in a separate feature). Certainly, he looked a little wizened in the new photos, and especially in the video for the single, but nobody outside of his family and close friends can have known that he’d had cancer for 18 months. Not as shocking as someone famous you admire dying in a car crash, for instance, but shocking nonetheless. We shall hear no more new David Bowie music in our lives.

Anyway, I will pay tribute to my all-time favourite musician elsewhere. I blog herewith about David Cameron, who had this to say.

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What David Cameron, or David Cameron’s office, says via his Twitter account impacts on way more people than anything I will ever say. He has 1,327,911 followers. He is the Prime Minister of a country. His party were voted in at the last election. Of course he has 1.3m followers. Many of these followers will take everything he or his office types at face value. And indeed, I am not saying he didn’t “grow up listening to David Bowie.” David Bowie is always on the radio. Unless you only listened to Radio 4 or Radio 3, or don’t listen to the radio at all, you’re going to hear David Bowie’s hits. I’m not even saying that David Cameron doesn’t think he is a “pop genius” or a “master of reinvention.” But when I saw the tweet (I follow David Cameron as you must know your enemy), I felt indignant.

I read the comments under David Cameron’s tweet, posted by his office within around ten minutes of the official announcement by David Bowie’s office, and this was the gist: “Fuck off … Fuck off, you twat … You prick … Oh do fuck off … Fuck off, dish face … Bowie was the antithesis of everything you stand for … Piss off … Twat.” Rather than join this jolly mob of abuse the Prime Minister will never read, which would be water off a prick’s back in any event, I simply retweeted his tribute with a footnote of my own.

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Note, I used the epithet “Sir,” to distance myself from any foul-mouthed abuse. This was intended to back-reference what Johnny Marr said when David Cameron voiced his appreciation of the Smiths. He “forbade” him from liking the band, as I’m sure you remember.

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Anyhow, my “You are not allowed to comment” comment was passed around by those who agreed with the sentiment. I felt strongly and passionately about the insidious and hollow way our Prime Minister uses social media to attach himself to what he thinks are issues that will endear him to the electorate. Jumping in with a personal tribute to David Bowie, on the great man’s untimely death, felt particularly ghoulish to me. Part of my problem is the motivation behind it. I have plenty of evidence that David Cameron’s motives are not always sincere or honest. He was on Andrew Marr only this weekend explaining why selling council houses would be good for people living in poverty and at no point actually told the truth, which is that he despises anyone without the get-up-and-go to be rich and if they can’t afford to buy their council house, then all they’re doing is preventing less lazy people from buying it.

I see David Cameron as a hateful figure. A dimwit without the empathy to understand what it’s like to grow up without a helping hand. He lacks the intelligence to see how much ire he stirs up when, say, he turns up in his wellies to be interviewed about the floods in Cumbria when it’s his government that has cut flood defence spending, and engineers his photocall so that he doesn’t have to speak to any ordinary people who have been flooded out.

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That’s the background for my tweet, something most people who care to follow me understood. But a few took violently against it. I took abuse from individuals who called me, variously, a “fascist”, a “totalitarian”, and, in one illiterate case, a “fuck whit”. Before blocking them, I checked to see if they were Tories, but it was hard to tell. One compared me to Donald Trump in my haste to disallow one elected man from commenting on the cruel passing of my favourite artist from cancer. I’m pretty sure you can’t be a fascist if you are against one single person? And it would be a pretty useless totalitarian state that oppressed one citizen.

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My dislike – and disenfranchisement – of David Cameron is not based on his race, or ethnicity, or his political views, or his detachment from the country he is chopping up and selling off; it is merely based on his being David Cameron, and a grudge I have been building up for five years. One rather more reasonable person on Twitter claimed to also “dislike his politics” but remained affronted that I had disallowed the PM from commenting on David Bowie (as if perhaps I had some kind of administrative or legislative power to do so). Mind you, “disliking his politics” does not quite go far enough to describe my feelings about David Cameron.

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So, RIP David Bowie. And do shut up, David Cameron. Someone else sarcastically asked me to provide a list of those who can and cannot comment. Easy: everybody else can; David Cameron can’t. Hope that clears it up.

Norman service

I grew up with Norman Wisdom, who has died, aged 95. His films seemed to be on an endless loop on TV when I was a kid; they formed part of my comedy education, alongside the Carry Ons, the Doctor films and various other gentle oddities like Nearly A Nasty Accident, What A Whopper and The Iron Maiden. Outside of the Keystone Cops and all the old Mack Sennett/Hal Roach silents and two-reelers which were also on telly all the time, I pretty much grew up thinking that Britain was the centre of the comedy universe. And in the 50s and 60s, it pretty much was. (I actually made no distinction at the time between old and new, American and British, black and white and colour – hey, everything was in black and white in our house until about 1973 anyway – if it was a film and it was a comedy and it was on telly, me and my brother Simon were there.) If I had comedy heroes in my childhood, they would have been Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Sid James, Kenneth Connor and Norman Wisdom. All dead now, of course. But still alive.

If you look them up, there are about a dozen classic, mainly job-based Wisdom comedies in black and white, from 1953’s definitive Trouble In Store (the one in a shop) to The Early Bird in 1965 (the one on the milk round). I remember seeing Michael Bentine’s The Sandwich Man on TV, a sort of loose comedy compendium made in colour in 1966, in which Wisdom plays a boxer, and it felt a bit weird. Weird to see him in colour, and weird to see him playing a small part. Also, it seemed such a melancholy film, out of sync with the merry world of Wisdom, in which slapstick mayhem was never far around the next corner.

Norman played the fool, with his ill-fitting, half-mast demob suit and pulled-down cap, always on the verge of hysterical laughter, or so it seemed, but capable, like all the best clowns, of conveying almost heartbreaking melancholy. I’ll be honest, as a kid, I found those bits harder to take. I preferred it when he was falling over, or into things, or off things, or leading a brass band down a blind alley, or rounding up an entire police force with his father’s police whistle, or just bringing chaos into the life of Jerry Desmonde (who was already dead by the time I saw him – he passed away in 1967). Once I came of age, and discovered Spike Milligan and Monty Python and Mad magazine, I put the innocent silliness of Wisdom behind me, but he made an indelible impression on my young soul. I’m sad that he’s gone, although he lived a long life, loved and even worshipped as a God for most of it. He was pratfalling to very near the end. That might have seemed desperate or tragic in others, but not him, oddly.

I was privileged to be in the same room as Norman in around 1993, I think, when Stuart and I were invited to a light entertainment reception at the BBC on the back of our first Radio 5 comedy series, and felt very much like interlopers or competition winners. We were in awe of the big stars who attended in the Council Chambers, which seemed impossibly grand – I mean the likes of Wogan, Parsons, Jacobs – but it was Wisdom who made the biggest impact. He will have been a sprightly 78 then, but it was still a delight to see him take the tray from a waiter and prance around, giggling, serving us all drinks. What a treat.

Gawd bless him. And if you have kids, show them On The Beat or Trouble In Store, made over half a century ago, and see if they laugh. I hope they do.