You make the stars 

13 February 2017

From the TVTimes for week commencing 25 August 1963

After eight years of producing shows for television, I have discovered one curious enigma — the viewing public makes the stars … not us.

I could name a dozen or so performers who have had the same chance as Bruce Forsyth, Tony Hancock, Charlie Drake and Harry Secombe without becoming top-liners.

The true TV artist has to have the gift of making friends with his public and being made a welcome guest in their homes.

If he fails to bridge this gap, there is nothing at all he can do about it. It’s the viewing public’s choice all the time.

I went into television production in 1955 for two reasons.

Impresario Bernard Delfont – the man behind many stars you see on ITV

First, it seemed a natural showcase for many of the stars who appear in my stage productions and second, to provide opportunities for up-and-coming artists.

By this time, I had already put on a number of shows, ranging from London Palladium revues to straight plays and musicals in my own theatres.

The field of television production was both a logical step and a challenge.

My two associates, Billy Marsh and Keith Devon, agreed and we formed a company to enable us to offer viewers programmes handled by our own organisation.

And, having so much to do with producing stage shows, many of the performers with whom I am associated wanted me to handle their TV productions, too.

This is how I came to be in the business of producing quite a few of the shows you see on television.

Everyone gets a kick out of spotting new talent, so I’ll start with the story of the biggest star I’ve found for TV … so far.

In 1957, Billy Marsh told me he had seen a promising comedian at Babbacombe, Devon. The following year this performer did another summer season at The Hippodrome, Eastbourne.

Billy insisted that I see the show with my wife, Carole, and afterwards we went backstage to see the artist.

I told him we’d both enjoyed his act and that I would try to put him into one of my Sunday Shows on ITV.

At first he didn’t seem to realise what I had said. Suddenly it dawned on him that I really meant it.

“Just give me the chance, Mr. Delfont,” he said. “That’s all I ask.”

Bruce Forsyth… “bitterly disappointed” after his TV debut

A week or two later he got his chance. I paid him £50 to appear in a show from the Prince of Wales Theatre with American star, Doretta Morrow.

Watching at home with my wife and family, we all thought him very good. I felt sure there would be plenty of inquiries about him next morning.

But there was nothing. No reaction — and the artist went back to his summer show at Eastbourne bitterly disappointed.

We decided to try again and gave him a return booking three weeks later. This time there was no mistake.

Frankie Vaughan was topping the bill and our unknown entertainer made a tremendous hit.

In the Daily Mirror next day, television writer, Clifford Davis, said:

“If I were a TV producer looking for a new comedian around whom to build a regular series, then this performer would get my offer.

“If the phones aren’t ringing with inquiries from ITV and BBC this morning then, as far as giving new talent a break, TV variety, on both channels, can put up the shutters and go out of business!”

I knew Val Parnell was looking for a new compere to take over Sunday Night at the London Palladium the following Autumn, so I rang him and suggested the unknown comedian.

Val, who had also seen the show, agreed with me and, the following September, gave him television’s plum job—to compere the Palladium show.

By now you will have guessed the comedian was Bruce Forsyth.

The following November, I was due to present my first Royal Variety Show from the London Coliseum before the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh.

I went out of my way to draw up a programme including a bunch of up-and-coming youngsters who had been given their first break on TV.

Sophie Tucker and Bob Hope are introduced to the Queen by Bernard Delfont after last year’s Royal variety Performance

Naturally, I included Bruce Forsyth, but there were Bernard Bresslaw, Charlie Drake, the Mudlarks, Ron Parry and the King Brothers, too.

I also nominated Roy Castle, a young entertainer from the North who had been on several variety bills for me and had done well on television.

Bruce Forsyth, as compere of his first Royal Variety Show, was a great hit, but, as it happened, Roy, once £10-a-week stooge for comedian Jimmy James, stopped the show.

Although I have had the honour to be associated with several Royal Shows since then, no performer has had such an overnight success as Roy Castle, the young unknown from Huddersfield.

After last year’s show, which I presented in collaboration with Leslie Macdonnell, managing director of Moss Empires, I had the privilege of presenting the artists to the Queen.

Sophie Tucker, grand old lady of international show business, was in her usual, bubbling good form.

After being presented, she chatted gaily to Her Majesty: “A great show, wasn’t it?” said Sophie. “Mind you, they were a very sophisticated audience out there!”

This was Bob Hope’s third Royal Show, but he still had stage fright before he went on. “I’ve never been so nervous,” he told the Queen. That made two of us!

Morecambe and Wise… their first television series was “almost a national disaster”

It was left to comedians Mike and Bernie Winters to make us all feel completely at ease.

“Where are you working now?” the Queen asked them.

“Oh,” said Mike, “haven’t you seen our names outside on the bills?”

“You must have seen them,” said Bernie. “Big type, too — we’re here in pantomime.”

Three other stars I helped to get started in their careers were Frankie Vaughan, Winifred Atwell and Joan Regan.

Frankie Vaughan got his first variety date from us on the strength of a gramophone record he brought to my office.

Billy Marsh, my Deputy Managing Director, played it over to me and I was so impressed I thought he was an established American singer.

Winifred Atwell first came to us as an accompanist for a singer.

Carole Lynne, my wife, was due to sing at a charity concert at the London Casino, but developed a bad throat at the last moment. I rang the theatre to tell them she couldn’t appear.

I asked Keith Devon, another of my co-directors, if he could replace her and he said: “I’ve a coloured girl here who played well at rehearsals. Let’s give her a chance as a solo act.” Winnie did so well we put her under contract.

Joan Regan is the singer who got an introduction to us via her bank manager.

Joan Regan was introduced by way of her bank manager

She was determined to get herself an audition and worried the man so much he eventually rang Keith Devon and pleaded with him to hear her.

We put her on the stage — and got her a recording contract as well.

One of the big comedy show hits on ITV this season has been the Morecambe and Wise series.

Yet their first television series, on that other channel, was almost a national disaster. Even the comedians themselves admit this.

However, some four years ago they came to us and asked us to put them in some of our shows.

We got them a few London Palladium TV dates and then, last year, I suggested to Val Parnell that the time had come for them to have another shot at a television series.

This time we had the script-writing team of Sid Green and Dick Hills, who also write Dave King’s TV shows, for the series.

And, as it turned out, all the Morecambe and Wise series have been tremendously popular.

Frankie Vaughan’s first variety date came as a result of a record

Bernard Delfont, Baron Delfont (5 September 1909 – 28 July 1994), was born Boris (or Boruch) Winogradsky and was the brother of Lew and Leslie Grade. He married Helen Heyman, also known as Carole Lynne, Baroness Delfont (16 September 1918 – 17 January 2008) and they had a son and two daughters.

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