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Bruce Forsyth: The showbiz superstar with Ulster links

First wife Co Antrim girl, and gigolo ancestor was Botanic Gardens curator

By Ivan Little

Showbiz legend Sir Bruce Forsyth who died yesterday had a little-known generation game of his own in Northern Ireland.

For the 89-year-old celebrity who hosted a huge number of TV shows, from Sunday Night At The London Palladium to Play Your Cards Right and Strictly Come Dancing, not only had an Ulster-born first wife, Penny Calvert from Derriaghy, but he also found out that he had roots in Belfast's Botanic Gardens.

The latter little drama of discovery was played out in front of the television cameras as Bruce dug into his past on the BBC ancestry show Who Do You Think You Are?

Researchers flew Bruce to Belfast to investigate his great-grandfather Joseph Forsyth Johnson's links with the city.

It transpired that the acclaimed English landscape architect had spent eight years from 1869 in Belfast as the curator of Botanic Gardens, where his flower shows were renowned for their showmanship.

But Bruce also established that his green-fingered ancestor had sown a few wild oats too, not in Ulster, but in America where Johnson went, leaving his family behind.

Bruce, whose real surname was Johnson, went to New York to probe a claim in a letter he received from an American woman who said that his great-grandfather was a bigamist.

But although he did have a second family in the States, Joseph Johnson didn't marry the mother of his children, and eventually abandoned them too.

The Forsyth saga shocked the versatile showman.

Bruce described his great-grandfather as "something of a blaggard", but it was quickly pointed out that he himself also had a reputation as a ladies' man.

The song and dance man did waltz a number of women down the aisle after Penny, but in later years he showed a compassionate side to his nature in his post-marital relationship with her.

In 2013 it was revealed that Bruce was nursing Penny through dementia, even though they'd been divorced for 40 years.

Bruce and Penny, who'd met as young dancers in a show at the Windmill Theatre in London, were married in 1953 and they had three daughters together.

But Bruce wasn't able to resist the "temptations" which he said accompanied his increasing fame on stage and on television.

In 1972 he and Penny separated, and they divorced the next year.

After their split Bruce married his glamorous Generation Game hostess Anthea Redfern and they had two daughters before they, too, divorced six years later.

But Bruce didn't stay single for long. He met a former Miss World, Wilnelia Merced, as they judged a beauty competition and married the Puerto Rican, who was 32 years his junior, in 1983. She gave birth to his first and only son.

But friends said that all the while Bruce, who was famed for his catchphrases like "Didn't he do well?" and "Nice to see you, to see you nice", kept in touch with Penny and he visited her regularly in a residential care home, where she was forced to go after suffering a stroke in 2008.

Penny had been a guest at her former husband's 80th birthday party that year, and in 2009 Bruce invited her to be guest of honour at a special Mother's Day party at his Surrey home, where he presented her with a bouquet of flowers.

Bruce and Penny's daughter Julie spoke of how Wilnelia and her mother were at the party together, and how a "good wishes" telephone call was received from Redfern.

Julie explained: "As I glanced around me at my sisters, my half-sisters, half-brother, stepmother and mother, it struck me that this was probably my father's greatest achievement.

"To have three wives and six children who adore him and get along, without acrimony, rows or bitterness, is extraordinary.

"We are like a huge extended family."

Bruce courted controversy, however, over his wife's dementia. After watching her condition worsen he called for the legalisation of assisted dying in order to "let people die with a bit of dignity left".

He said he would prefer to die at a time of his own choosing rather than suffer the same decline.

Bruce said his first wife didn't remember him during his later visits to her along with Julie, adding: "It's just so awful to have your mind and your memories taken away from you.

"It bothers me that an awful lot of people are just left to suffer.

"The law should be changed."

Former Ulster Television presenter Anne Hailes posted a Facebook message yesterday recalling a visit by Bruce to the Havelock House studios in Belfast around 1962.

She said Bruce "was a real charmer" adding: "He took the studio by storm. I was in bits as I was the production assistant timing the programme to its conclusion and he wouldn't stop clowning around for Ivor Mills (the presenter) to wind up."

Anne revealed that when she was writing about the early days of UTV in her book, Standby Studio, she had a few "lovely" chats with Bruce about times gone by and about the London Palladium.

"I'd written to him asking if we could talk, he phoned me and not only gave me his home telephone number, but his mobile as well."

Anne went on: "He was one of the old school, proud and professional.

"And a great entertainer."

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