Belfast Telegraph

Bruce Forsyth came from a TV generation that knew the simple value in making people happy

He may never have been the critics' darling, but Mr Saturday Night gave us all an uncomplicated icon, says Gail Walker

You know something special is going on when the death of an 89-year-old man long known to be in ill-health takes terrorism, Brexit and economic gloom off the front pages. That was Bruce Forsyth for you.

Many papers carried headlines based on his famous catchphrases: 'Didn't he do well?', 'Nice to have seen you … to have seen you, nice', 'Good game, Good game'.

I suspect that much of the public grief was a recognition that he represented the last link with TV's golden past, a time before narrowcasting, niche audience research, demographic-based shows, an era when the whole family watched together, when entertainment cut across generations, sensibilities and tastes.

Bruce was - to borrow an American showbizism - Mr Saturday Night. For over half-a-century he was a constant presence on our screens - from the black and white days of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, to the glory days of The Generation Game (watched religiously by 21 million people), Play Your Cards Right, The Price Is Right, through to Strictly Come Dancing (which, let's face it, hasn't been the same since he left).

He was the last of the old music hall troopers who could turn his hand to anything and all with the aim of keeping the audience amused - nothing more or less. He was, to use that hackneyed phrase, an all-round family entertainer. He sang, he danced, he could deliver a joke or ad lib with ease (he could also apparently play a mean jazz piano).

And for that the public loved him.

But it is easy to forget that he was subject, for much of his career, to critical opprobrium. Brucie was never the critics' darling. Not only was he some 'show-must-go-on' old trooper, he was - weary sigh - king of that lowest form of entertainment - the game show.

Remember all those jeers about the British Ratpack - Brucie, Tarby and ... erm ... Kenny Lynch.

Bruce was the face of the showbiz establishment.

And, of course, they were right. Brucie wasn't edgy, his act wasn't savage and eschewed politics or controversy. What he did wasn't iconoclastic or groundbreaking. It was 'comfy' (or anodyne, according to his critics). It was unthreatening. You could rest assured that nothing untoward was going to happen.

Bruce Forsyth was all about reassurance.

But Brucie knew his audience. And while it may have dismayed the critics and the alternative comedians of the 1980s, he knew that his people wanted to be entertained. Not improved. Not enlightened. Not to be harangued. Not to be made aware of their moral failings or political naivety.

They wanted a song and a bit of a laugh. But Bruce not only knew people, he liked them. A lot.

That was the secret to the magic he wove on television. He was best when he was interacting with ordinary people. He largely created the idea of interaction with the audience. The whole point of the Generation Game was the enjoyment of watching ordinary people making a spectacle of themselves, with Bruce providing an arch, but never malicious, one-man chorus. The asides, the raised eyebrows, the pretended annoyances, the shocked double-takes, showed a consummate professional but also a genius in his natural habitat - bouncing off the energy of his audience. It may sound pretentious, but he was dissolving the distance between audience and performer; the people became central to the act, with the corny jokes the merest of props. At his best, Bruce introduced the idea of reality TV where ordinary people were central to the experience. Which kind of makes Bruce a bit of a revolutionary.

Take one small example doing the Twitter rounds at the moment. At the 1974 FA Cup Final, in front of 100,000 fans, Brucie is leaving the Wembley tunnel to sing Abide with Me. The football crowd howls derision at yet another delay to the footie action … It's a ghastly audience! But Bruce quickly grabs a football and dribbles it up the pitch, then hoofs it into the (thanks, BBC producer!) unseen net. The crowd cheers. He races back down the pitch. Both sets of fans roar approval with a vast sudden chorus of 'Nice one, Brucie, nice one, son, nice one, Brucie, let's 'ave another one'. In 30 seconds, from zero to hero. It's hard to think of a contemporary entertainer who would a) risk it and b) be capable of pulling It off.

What few knew, of course, was that in Bruce's youth, he had been a proficient amateur footballer. He knew exactly that the vast crowd would be delighted that this poncy TV star in a tuxedo was suddenly revealed as having really been one of them all along.

But Bruce's showmanship wasn't built on the playing fields of Eton or in the Cambridge Footlights. For all the pretended edginess of the 'new comedy' which drove Tommy Cooper, Benny Hill and Tarbuck off TV and almost did for Morecambe and Wise and the Two Ronnies, the comedy was all largely scripted, utterly predictable and conservative in its truest sense - re-establishing the gulf between artiste and audience.

Now those alternative comedians themselves have migrated to endless anonymous stand-up shows and satirical news quizzes. Wallpaper you can buy by the square yard.

But people were Bruce's stock and trade. Many have testified to his personal qualities of kindness, his loyalty to friends and colleagues. In his complicated personal life, he remained friends with his ex-wives - a testament to his character - even taking care of his first NI-born wife, Penny Calvert, when she succumbed to dementia.

Generation Game co-host Rosemary Ford spoke of his determination to keep in touch, phoning regularly and showing a genuine interest in her family news. Right down to the archetypal cab driver vowing that he was a really nice bloke.

We will miss Bruce. Not just the man but the style of entertainment he represented. Kind and gentle and non-threatening yes. But it also unified us (even if - as in his Strictly days - it was with a self-knowing groan). His humour didn't divide. It didn't hurt. It didn't divide people into sheep and goats. It didn't preen itself as morally superior to the masses.

And that is no mean legacy.

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