The Bruce Forsyth Story: part 1 – I’m in charge! 

18 August 2017

From the TVTimes for week commencing 20 December 1959

I was born in Edmonton, North London, in 1928. And if there is a better way to start a life story than by getting born, I wish I had been told before. Knowing where to start is difficult. If I hadn’t started by getting born, I’d have gone straight into the time when, in a manner of speaking, I was reborn.

Aged 12, tap dancing in a satin suit made by my mother

About a year ago I was called to see Palladium starmaker Val Parnell. Five weeks earlier he had taken me on as compere of Sunday Night at the London Palladium. I’d been on trial. Now I was to get the verdict.

What an office it turned out to be. One of the biggest and most luxurious I’ve ever seen. Thick plush carpet … beautiful panelled walls on which hang oil paintings … a grand piano … an imposing desk with a battery of telephones.

When Val Parnell told me he liked the way I was doing the show and wanted to extend the booking, I decided to put my cards on the table. I stuck out my chin — which is hard to do, since it’s usually sticking out on its own — and said: “I want to quit.”

The idea of staying on worried me. I’d heard that too much television was bad for an artist and I didn’t want people getting tired of me.

Maybe that sounds a bit strange coming from someone just reaching up to the heights of stardom. I just felt that way.

Val Parnell, however, wouldn’t hear of it. He said nice things about new faces and public interest and staying on to the end of June.

I left his office with my head in a whirl. When he’d been complimenting me on my handling of the show his voice seemed to take on a bell-like quality. But when I figured that June was 30 shows away, I forgot about the bell and just reckoned I must have been cracked to accept.

So there was Bruce, well and truly in charge!

This was fame. I was being called a new face. That was a laugh for a start, considering I’d had to live with the one I’d had for 30 years. If anything, I reckoned I was quite an old-timer in the business.

Dressed in “RAF uniform” for a wartime charity show

I’d been chasing after success for 17 years — a time of joy and tears, moments of short-lived triumph and moments when even if a hole had opened up for the depressed Bruce Forsyth to fall in, his luck would have been so bad that some other joker would have fallen in first.

I was 14 when I became a professional after years of being stagestruck. It all started with my passion for dancing. I was always dancing and jigging around the house — the underwear was so itchy those days. When my mother eventually suggested I should take lessons, I jumped at the chance.

I like to think that both my parents caught the show business bug off me. Anyway, during the war we all joined an amateur variety company in Edmonton. We gave shows for different charities. There was the Aid to Russia Fund, the Buy a Spitfire campaign and others.

Mother became the secretary. Father, being a bit of a live wire, looked after the lighting while carrying on with his garage business.

When I was 13 — crafty Forsyth — I cashed in on my dancing lessons and opened my own school. A shilling a lesson in a studio which was part of one of my father’s garages. Before long, I had a fair old troupe of boys and girls and enough shillings to make our gasmeter man suspicious.

At 14 – my first accordion

But the professional stage was calling. Calling so quietly that only I could hear it … and then in my dreams. The year 1942 rolled along and so did my 14th birthday. That was a landmark. It meant my services were no longer required by the Minister of Education, so I left school and went on the stage as Boy Bruce, The Mighty Atom.

Mighty Atom, huh! The way audiences loved me I felt more like a damp squib. As it was, I soon got a rocket.

My first professional job, at Bilston, Staffs, was nearly my last. The show folded up after a week. I began to realise the kind of life I’d chosen. One week in a job; the next week out.

Fortunately for me there was a shortage of entertainers. Soon I was working for the American Red Cross doing a song and dance act in American Army camps and hospitals all over the country.

And how well we were treated! I remember going into a top Manchester hotel and being shown into a room with a telephone. What luxury for a 15-year-old. I immediately phoned home and said this was the life for me. And so it was for the next four years.

I really thought I was on top of the world when I did an audition at London’s Windmill Theatre and was accepted. For two weeks I rehearsed hard, for one week I worked — and then the Government began to take a great interest in my future and sent me my call-up papers.

In 1953 I was back knocking at the Windmill door and getting another chance to prove that gags and gals can go together … if they’re on at separate times.

Penny doing a solo number. That’s me, second from the left

Soon I took a hand in arranging the dances and music. One of the dancers I most enjoyed arranging for was Penny Calvert. Pretty soon we started more arrangements — for a future together. We felt we were so well matched that we ought to strike out on our own. We didn’t set the world on fire.

Father outside the garage I made into a dance studio

In fact, we were downright stupid. We left the Windmill without having another engagement. So we started our career with eight weeks out of work.

Still, I wasn’t quite penniless. How could I be with the nicest Penny in the world as my partner?

The break came — an offer of a cabaret tour in India. I gave the agent a ring to accept and Penny a ring to get married.

The wedding was in Edmonton and our honeymoon was a cruise through the Mediterranean. That’s a nice way to start married life. Even nicer, when you aren’t paying for it.

India was idyllic, too. We used to turn up at the local European swimming club at 10 in the morning and stay there, diving in the water and drip-drying in the sun, until eight at night, when we’d get ready for the show.

But had I known the turn my career was to take when I was back in England, I might not have felt so happy. Soon I was to be on my own again in show business and my fortunes were to reach their lowest ebb.

NEXT: I Beat the Clock!

You Say

2 responses to this article

Paul Mason 19 August 2017 at 6:42 am

Another link with my childhood extinguished I must have been allowed to stay up late as I remember Bruce Forsyth and Sunday Night at the London Palladium, Beat The Clock particularly.

One newspaper (The Mail) made a mistake by stating viewers “across the land” saw Bruce Forsythe’s debut on BBC TV at 11 yo. As we know TV in 1939 was limited to comfortably off Londoners only. BFs 75 year TV career has to be accommodating of a long gap until the 1950s when most people will have seen him for the first time.
RIP Bruce. Didn’t he do well?

Paul Mason 20 August 2017 at 8:11 am

Bruce Forsyth compered a special show for the launch of Harlech TV (later HTV) in the summer of 1968. A little odd because you don’t associate him with Wales and the West but there you go. I remember seeing it as well.

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