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Bruce Forsyth recalls dog days with Ulster-born first wife

By Staff Reporter

Published 24/10/2015

Bruce Forsyth and first wife Penny in 1961
Bruce Forsyth and first wife Penny in 1961
Bruce Forsyth with current wife Wilnelia

Sir Bruce Forsyth has given a fascinating insight into his marriage to his Ulster-born first wife Penny Calvert.

In his new autobiography Strictly Bruce: Stories Of My Life, the 87-year-old reveals how he met Penny, who was from Derriaghy, when they both worked as dancers at the Windmill Theatre in London in 1947.

"I could see she was an excellent dancer with a very appealing personality... I would arrange to work with her whenever possible," writes Bruce.

And he also tells of the extraordinary lengths the pair went to in order to save the life of their beloved dog Rusty, who lived with them in their touring caravan and had become part of Bruce's on-stage act at the London Palladium.

"Rusty (right) was a truly lovely fellow who performed all sorts of fantastic tricks," says Sir Bruce. "His favourite was to flip a biscuit off his nose and catch it in his mouth."

One day, however, Rusty suddenly lost the ability to walk. "His back legs gave up on him," recalls Bruce. "Penny and I were distraught. We had no idea what caused this sudden disability. We called the vet, who explained that Rusty was suffering from suppressed distemper. 'He will never again have the use of his back legs', we were told.

"It was awful to witness - almost overnight he had become this pathetic, helpless animal. The only way I could take him outside for at least some limited exercise was to grab hold of his tail and lift his back legs up, allowing him to walk on his front legs with his back end sort of gliding along. This didn't hurt him at all and he loved to be outside, but people in the street gave me filthy looks."

Despite the bleak prognosis, the couple refused to give up on Rusty and began to massage his legs. "Penny was determined to bring our boy back to his old self," continues Bruce.

"This went on for some weeks, with pressure growing from various vets we visited to have him put down. Penny refused to give up hope.

"One day Rusty knocked over his bowl of water. 'Oh, Rusty, you bad dog!' I exclaimed. 'Look what you've done! Come here!'

"Then, very gradually, Rusty rose on all four legs and walked towards me. We could not believe it."

Rusty's eventual successor, a Great Dane called Brutus, also had a close shave. Then separated from Penny, Bruce recalls getting a call from his distressed eldest daughter Debbie asking him to come to the family home immediately as Brutus was lying on the floor, foaming at the mouth. When he arrived, she and Bruce tried to get Brutus onto to his feet: "That seemed beyond him and he stood there shakily, still foaming and looking extremely poorly. All of a sudden he sneezed. And from out of one of his nostrils, flying like a dart ... a toothpick!"

His daughter eventually explained they'd recently held a party and some people had been using toothpicks.

Initially, Bruce and Penny had hoped to hit the big time as a song and dance double act, and in 1953 they were offered a four-month tour of India - and wed before they embarked. "Our booking agent had suggested that if we were man and wife we could be together and would be entitled to a bigger cabin. As Penny and I had known for some time that we wanted to be married, this proved an incentive to move our plans forward. We enjoyed a very brief four-day honeymoon and then we were off."

Bruce and Penny, who had three daughters - Debbie, Julie, and Laura - eventually divorced in 1973 and he went on to marry Anthea Redfern, and then current wife Wilnelia, a former Miss World. However, he remained on good terms with Penny and when she became ill with dementia and was moved into a residential care home in Kent in 2008 he was a regular visitor until her death in 2014.

Strictly Bruce: Bruce Forsyth: Stories Of My Life, Bantam Press, £20

Belfast Telegraph

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