LET me tell you a little story. (It won’t take long, and by the time you wake up it’ll be over.) It’s about a fellow called Bruce. Skinny little runt, not much of a looker: far too much chin and not enough hair, though it’s wonderful what a good toupee and a comb-over will do. No matinée idol, more like your embarrassing Uncle Fred, who never quite decided whether he wanted that moustache. The sort of chap girls take pity on, but not enough pity on, if you take my meaning. Anyway, never mind all that.
He was a lovely dancer. You can always tell a dancer by his walk: feet turned out. No, dear, I don’t mean sissy, though I daresay you might. And he dreamed of making a living tapping the boards, making that fantastic noise. But being prudent, and loving his mum and dad who had scraped and saved to give him dance lessons, he also trained as a teleprinter-operator when he was in the RAF, just so he had a proper trade to go to.
Which was just as well, since for a long, long while Bruce’s best showbiz moment was bottom of the bill at the Theatre Royal in Bilston. That put precisely 13 shillings and fourpence in his pocket. Poor lad! you sigh. So deserving. And so modest that when he did a turn, or several, at the Windmill in Soho, among bevies of beauties wearing nothing but a bunch of grapes (who’s a lucky boy, then?), he never once lost his cool. Well, only once, and then he married her. So shy and retiring that when he was rescued from Summer Season at Eastbourne Hippodrome for his Big TV Break on “Sunday Night at the London Palladium” (in 1958, for peanuts, on a two-week contract), he was so worried about over-exposure on the telly that he booked himself for Summer Season at Almost Anywhere Else-on-Sea.
And then along came “Brucie” to take Britain by storm! Shimmying across the screen with those big teeth, that tireless cheesy patter and those nifty feet (over-exposure was his middle name!). His three big shows—for anyone out there who’s been locked in a deep freeze for 50 years—were “Palladium” in the 60s, “The Generation Game” in the 70s and 90s and “Strictly Come Dancing” in the noughties, and they were always the biggest thing on telly, topping the ratings as smoothly as he danced the night away. From 13 shillings and fourpence for a whole run to £1,000 a week, 1962 money! Brucie’s showbiz career lasted so long, 75 years, that it got into Guinness World Records. How hearts raced (or stomachs turned) when his tenor tones soared over the credits for “The Generation Game” as he posed in silhouette, back bent and fist raised to brow: not so much Rodin’s “Thinker” as “Game Show Host as Human Questionmark”!
Li-ife is the name of the game
And I wanna play the game with you.
Brucie was loud. He started every show he could with his best London-costermonger’s roar, “Nice to see you…” so the fans would all roar back, “To see you nice!” And he was rude. My word could he be rude, as the poor contestants tried to dance flamenco or do magic tricks or make a pot on a wheel, all against the clock of course. “You’ve made a real mess of that, haven’t you?” “Do you wanna play, or not?” “Oh, do shut up dear, I’m trying to get on with the show!” But how the audience loved it, with all the knowing winks and jaw-drops in their direction, and the truly dreadful prizes of microwaves and glitterballs and a year’s worth of socks! They lapped it up. As for the girls, he only had to say “Give us a twirl!” and they fell into his open arms. He held a record there too—don’t be cheeky!—for bedding two Miss Worlds, one of whom was so gorgeously curved that she became Mrs Brucie number three. How about that, then?
Rolling back the carpet
Now, modest Bruce found loud Brucie difficult. In fact, he couldn’t stand him. All he wanted was to do the best he could; that name-in-lights stuff was nonsense. Yet Brucie had been there from the start, of course. Why else did little eight-year-old Bruce become so obsessed with Fred Astaire that he danced until his feet ached, rolling back the lounge carpet to tap across the lino? Who else nudged him to become “Boy Bruce, the Mighty Atom” at the tender age of 14, and gave him the courage to tell church-hall pianists, “No dear, no, it’s got to be faster”? Who else pushed him to be a complete professional in all the things he did, even plinking the ukulele? Who else moaned and moaned when his TV shows were put on at 5.40, after “Doctor Who”, rather than in prime time? And took it even worse when the dud game shows (yes, there were a few) were axed?
And who else but Brucie was the final starburst of the variety show, all-singing, all-dancing, all awful jokes? His energy could fill any theatre, especially his favourite, the wonderful Palladium, all marble and brass and plush. But kind, gentlemanly Bruce brought the warmth of the old style, which showed through even when vain Brucie was being tetchy and tart: a real love of playing to a live family audience. To be honest, “Strictly”, played to camera, wasn’t half so much fun. But there couldn’t be a better way to bow out, with a “Keeeeep dancing!” and a sail across the floor, while the whole world of entertainment cried: “Didn’t he do well?”