RIP Sir Bruce
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 24 2017
This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Thursday August 24 2017
The good thing about social media is that everyone has the chance to voice their opinion. The bad thing about social media is that everyone has the chance to voice their opinion. It must be nearly twenty years since I first encountered the word “blog”. At that time, I had not sold my soul to the internet and did not even own a modem or an e-mail account. The Guardian Saturday arts review carried a feature on literary blogs. I will never forget one item that was included. X, a very famous, distinguished, successful and rich author, had just published a new book. The man who was quoted (I am fairly sure it was a man. The term “mansplaining” had not been invented then but mansplainers have been around since the dawn of time) expressed himself in a very pompous and pretentious tone blissfully unaware of how ludicrous he appeared. He said something along these lines: “I have not read the book, but what X seems to be saying is…” He then engaged in a lengthy exegesis of a work that had never passed before his eyes.
What’s He to Hecuba?
I do not know if my Sri Lankan readers are familiar with the life and work of Bruce Forsyth. I never met Sir Bruce and never saw him perform live. I cannot claim to be a great fan although watching the Generation Game on Saturday evenings was s highlight of the week for me and my cool friends. I was horrified to see some of the reactions to the news of his death on August 18. One of my ‘friends’ on Facebook simply commented ‘jerk’. I unfriended her instantly. We had little or no interaction and I am sure the loss of my ‘friendship’ would not trouble her but such behaviour is not what I expect from a friend by any definition. Others wasted no time in giving their opinions of the deceased. Many said they did not appreciate his style of entertaining – which is fair enough but who needs to know when the corpse is not cold? Others felt it was essential that we know that they found him ‘creepy’.
Success and Failure and Hard Work
Forsyth’s career spanned 75 years and could be assessed as successful but it was not easy. He did not enjoy immediate success and worked very, very hard. He was only 14 when he appeared in a song, dance, and accordion act called “Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom”. His first appearance was at the Theatre Royal in Bilston, with The Great Marzo at the top of the bill. Forsyth made his television debut in 1939 as a child, singing and dancing on a BBC talent show. After the Second World War, he spent years on stage with little success and travelled the UK working seven days a week, doing summer seasons, pantomimes and circuses, where he became renowned for his strong-man act.
I first became aware of him when he was host of the ITV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium from 1958. This was basically an old-fashioned variety show featuring a game show called Beat the Clock (a precursor of some of Forsyth’s later TV successes) but the bill was often headed by rock and pop acts. I remember seeing on the show Buddy Holly, Pat Boone, Bobby Darin, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. This was an interesting time when many rock and pop acts were touring the UK as part of a variety bill with comedians, dancers and jugglers.
His career had its ups and downs and he was disappointed by his lack of success in the US but hard work and versatility saw him through. Forsyth earned a place in the 2013 Guinness Book of World Records as the male TV entertainer having had the longest career. In 2003, and again in 2010, Forsyth was a guest presenter on the news and satire quiz show Have I Got News for You. He was co-host of Strictly Come Dancing from 2004 to 2013. In 2013, he was the oldest performer ever to appear at the Glastonbury Festival. He received many awards and was knighted in 2011 for services to entertainment and charity.
Here are some comments from pseudonymous shadows on the Guardian website. “I thought Bruce Forsyth represented the worst of that appallingly (sic) art form known as British light entertainment. He could do about four talents pretty poorly, which was somehow suppose (sic) to add up to something worthwhile?” “Bruce’s main talent was in patronising the wholly untalented, while grinning at them sufficiently that they did not take too much offence.” “Why could anyone be surprised that the American’s (sic) didn’t take to his pointless and inane catch phrases and set piece tap dancing?”
Those who actually met him tell a different story. A friend of mine appeared on the Generation Game in 1975 and described Forsyth as “charming” – “a nice guy”. Someone who worked with him said: “I still don’t like the act that he did, but I respect him immensely as one of the most likeable and professional performers that I’ve ever worked with. When somebody famous dies, it’s often the case that my colleagues will tell tales of how that particular star had a nasty side. I’ve never heard any tales like that about Brucie and would be surprised if any were to emerge either.”
Celebrity Fair Game
Some commenters seem to be saying that anyone can say anything about a “celebrity” because celebrities have put themselves up for it by voluntarily placing themselves in the public eye (for money and fame). I can have some sympathy with that view in relation to the celebrity culture of the 21st Century. I have not lived in the UK since 1998 but every time I look at Mail Online and see all those non-entities being paraded I want to boke. These people are seeking fame and fortune without having the assets of talent or the capability of working hard. Do people like Forsyth deserve to be disrespected in death just because they decided to make a career out of entertaining the public?
Many of those vultures who were so quick to descend on Forsyth when he could no longer defend himself condemned him for the tradition he came from – variety, music hall. No doubt that could have been a seedy world (see John Osborne’s The Entertainer) but I loved it. When I was very young (four or five?) my parents took me to shows at the Cheltenham Opera House and the Gloucester Regal. They sometimes regretted it because I tended to imitate the comedians on the way home – “acting the maggot” as the Irish idiom has it. I never saw Forsyth but I did see Jimmy James, Dickie Henderson, Roy Castle, Jewel and Warris, Hylda Baker, Davey Kaye, Jimmy Wheeler, Max Bygraves, Max Wall, Cyril Fletcher, Al Read, Chic Murray, Reg Dixon, Charlie Drake, Stan Stennett, Ken Platt, Dave King, Max Miller, Arthur English and, best of all, Tony Hancock. Many of these comedians distinguished themselves as straight actors. To me the tradition Forsyth came from was a noble one.
Trolls at the Funeral
Someone shared my point of view: “Bruce Forsyth was not my cup of tea but he was loved by his family and by many others, and they should be allowed some space to celebrate his life and grieve in relative peace.” “One expects that people with the decency not to troll someone at a funeral would know better than to broadcast their random unkind thoughts for the newly bereaved to read. Sadly, it seems not.”
The main point is not whether Forsyth was any good or whether some nonentity (like me) was impressed by his talent or not. Our disagreements on social media are ephemeral and we will all flit away to some other topic within days or hours. This is about respecting the dead. A human being who did no harm to those denigrating him has died and his family are grieving.