Weaver's Week 2016-11-13

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"When I look back, I realise I did too many games shows. But you could do them so quick, and the money was so fantastic."


The Life and Career of Bruce Forsyth

Part 2: 1979 to present

Not all big stars do game shows. Victoria Wood eschewed the format – the comedian never presented a game show, and was rarely seen on panel games. Back in the 1970s, this was the norm. Some stars had stayed true to light entertainment stars – Morecambe and Wise, Mike Yarwood, Benny Hill. Others had gone from light entertainment to game shows – Bruce Forsyth, Bob Monkhouse, Nicholas Parsons. Two different tribes.

We left the tale in 1978, with Bruce Forsyth's Big Night. It wasn't a tremendous success. It had all the elements to be a hit, but was long and sprawling and a bit of a mess. The advertising promised much, and the show didn't deliver glitter out of the set. By the end, Bruce's confidence was knocked.{1}

Bruce went away and considered his options. He could have gone down the comedy interviewer route, talking with A-list celebrities, helping them to promote themselves – and to do strange things. There was room for more than one Russell Harty, Bruce could have been the new Graham Norton.

Or Bruce could have done more comedy acting, sitcoms come along often and one's sure to be a hit. He could have retired to do summer shows and cruises, it's a good living and the money's decent.

There was nothing inevitable about Bruce Forsyth doing so many game shows. It's a choice he made.

Bruce spent most of 1979 in America, his theatre show was loved in Hollywood and got a resounding "meh" from Broadway. "The maximum of vigor, the minimum of innovation," snarked one review. While over there, he saw two daytime game shows. Family Feud had already been spotted by Bob Monkhouse. Card Sharks saved his career.

Play Your Cards Right

"To watch Bruce Forsyth at work in Play Your Cards Right is like seeing someone using the entire output of Battersea power station to light a pencil torch. This game calls for nerves of steel, nothing else – no general knowledge aptitude, no physical skill, no mental agility. It does not require an accomplished all-rounder like Mr Forsyth to keep it going. Any competent quiz master could conduct the proceedings with one hand tied behind his back, blindfolded, standing on one leg, and playing bridge at the same time."

— Peter Davalle, The Times, 22 February 1980

Do we have to describe the format? Very well. Two couples, control question, one couple gives a number, the other suggests the answer is "higher" or "lower". Whoever's right gets to play, predict whether the next card will be higher or lower in rank than its immediate predecessor. A wrong prediction puts the other team into play, and teams can end their go if they think it helps. First team to turn over the last card wins the round. First team to win two rounds plays the endgame, betting points on how confident they are in their predictions. These points are converted into prizes.

It's the apotheosis of low-brain games. Will the next card be higher or lower than the last? There's a modicum of skill involved, and a very small amount of strategy over when to "freeze" and risk losing control.

Play Your Cards Right Some images from the 1996 series.

Play Your Cards Right could, indeed, be hosted by a stuffed elephant. It got Bruce Forsyth. Take, as read, that he'll interact with the players. Snark at them, snark with them. Give subtle encouragement to the newlyweds: not quite cheers, but certainly not jeers.

Bruce gets to show off his swift wits, often with the slightly risqué control questions. "We asked 100 single men in their twenties, if you undressed in front of a woman and she burst out laughing..." Never mind the hypothetical woman, the studio audience just did. They know what's going to happen in the next few minutes. "How do you feel about that, Steve?" "Well, I'd be distressed, but I'd still carry on." "What do you think about it, Becky," replies Bruce. "Yeah, he did carry on."

Always, Bruce knows where he wants the show to go. He'll allow a certain amount of larking about, but they do have a game to play, and it is going to be played to a conclusion. After the break, in any tie-break and in the final, Bruce is focussed on the job in hand: doing the best for the players. We always feel like Bruce wants people to do well, he's willing them on to achieve brilliance, even when "brilliance" is determined by "how lucky you are on the turn of a card."

With the strict format, Bruce could come up with many catchphrases. The Brucie Bonus arrived here, so did "Higher or lower", and "the actual answer is". When two cards of equal rank arrived, "You get nothing for a pair, not in this game". The audience got to finish off that catchphrase, as they did when Bruce asked "What do points make? Prizes"{2}.

Wilhema is to the left of Bruce.

Bruce has married three times. His first wife was Penny Calvert, a dancer, with whom he had three children. In 1973, he wed Anthea Redfern, the couple met on The Generation Game. Since 1983, he's been married to Wilnelia Merced, who he met while judging Miss World.

Forsyth continued to appear in the theatre, playing Barnum for spring 1981. He had a regular spot at The Secret Policeman's Ball, a benefit for Amnesty International. There was golf, and there was pro-celebrity tennis. He made television specials, one with Sammy Davies Junior is particularly well-remembered. Hollywood or Bust, helping members of the public to make movies, has been forgotten by all.

Hot Streak

In one respect, Bruce is similar to Cliff Richard: neither have quite managed to crack America. Bruce had a show of his own, Hot Streak went out on the ABC network in early 1984.

The challenge is simple to explain, difficult to achieve. Players are to communicate a particular word or idea down the line, from one to the next to the next. Of course, they can't hear what their predecessors have said.{3} Forty seconds to get from one end to the next, $100 for each person who gets the answer.

"Oh, that's easy, just repeat the clues I heard." Except they've thought of that, and there's a strict rule against repetition. You can't repeat the clues you've heard, and you can't repeat the clues – or even the significant words – that you've not heard.

Some images from the final show.

Are there four distinct ways of describing "burglar"? Thief in the night, hamburger mascot, masked criminal... we're struggling, and we've had weeks to think about it. The contestants had no time at all to think, just had to go on their swift wits.

The final round is very different – one player gives four words that are associated with a topic. The others on the team each get five seconds to blurt out words on that topic. Money for each hit – $200 in the first pass, $300 in the second, and on the last pass hitting all four words will multiply the total by five. A potential $10,000 each day, though they'd rarely pay more than $2,000.

Hot Streak was a serviceable show, nothing at all wrong with it, nothing to stand out as excellent. It had one big problem, it was put in an impossible slot opposite Wheel of Fortune and The Price is Right. Against these behemoths, Hot Streak struggled, and the initial 13-week run wasn't extended. The format is sound, and a German-language version ran for many years.

So it was back to LWT, and yet more episodes of Play Your Cards Right. The show continued until 1987, dropping Bruce into primetime for twenty weeks of the year. His new show for 1988 was You Bet!, a Saturday night extravaganza of bizarre challenges. It had similarities to the recent Go for It, only with celebrities and an audience vote. It allowed Bruce to do his thing, but also meant there was a lot of chatter and precious little action.

And then, in 1990, Bruce crossed back to the BBC. He began occasional variety shows, there was a revival of The Generation Game, and a new programme.

Takeover Bid

Takeover Bid

What best encapsulates the merger mania of the late 80s? At the time, it was this game show.

Three contestants are introduced, and have a brief chat with Bruce. It's a Bruce Forsyth game show, of course he's going to snark at and with the players. At the end of the interview, the assistant walks on carrying a Takeover Bid shopping bag.{4}

The player has selected a four-star prize, something desirable like a music synthesiser. The three-star prize was something decent, like an electronic dictionary. A two-star prize was worth having, even if it's "only" a coffee pot. The set was completed with a one-star prize, a joke item.

It's fairly clear that these items were on a budget, we reckon about £150 for the four-star prize, down to £75, £20, and the one-star prize had no retail value but likely cost £20 for BBC Props to knock up.

After seeing these prizes, the player risks one of them against Bruce's fact or fib question. It's an outlandish statement that is either true or false. Get the question right, and the player wins a Brucie Bonus (wow!) – another prize of equal value. Get it wrong, and the player loses their item and it drops out of the game.

Takeover Bid What's in the bag tonight?

It's a good ten minutes before we've met all three contestants, and only then do we move into the "crazy cryptics" round. Mildly cryptic crossword clues – "does this drink pack a wallop?"{5}. To get to this action, we first have to find out who's in control, then they've to select an opponent, and to select a prize to target, and which of their own prizes they want to risk. It's long and complex and faffy.

Remember how each prize had a "star" value? This is your score, these are your points. Whoever has the most "stars" on their board after six "crazy cryptics" wins. The other players leave with the prizes they've got, and we presume that any booby prizes are returned as well.

The winner has their "stars" totted up. If they won a Brucie Bonus, its value is added here. They get 10 points for winning, and their total's rounded up to the next multiple of 5.

Takeover Bid

Then they go and spend their winnings on Prize Mountain, a vast array of consumer durables. A hairdryer is a "5-star" prize, tennis equipment is rated "20-star". A dishwasher is "40-star", and the most expensive item is a stereo system at "50-star". And there's a "500-star" prize, a holiday somewhere exotic like Mauritius.

The final round uses the points from Play Your Cards Right, and five categories of questions from a big wheel. The champ bets his stars against questions, and picks prizes to win or lose. Again, there's an awful lot of clutter.

Bruce Forsyth doesn't work well with cluttered formats. We saw on Big Night that he's best when relaxed, when there isn't extraneous guff to remember and he can concentrate on making an excellent performance. Takeover Bid was a poor format, it would have been difficult in anyone's hands. It's no shame on Bruce that the show only lasted for one series.

Bruce with two kids who were at school when he collected his Lifetime Achievement award.

When did Bruce become a national icon? It could be when he became a showbiz veteran, somewhere during the long run of Play Your Cards Right. It was probably by 1991, when students at Manchester Polytechnic voted to name their headquarters "The Brucie Building". The polytechnic told the students to think again, and they compromised on Martin Luther King.

Or it could be the time at the British Comedy Awards in 1992, when Bruce got escorted off the stage for jabbering on too much, while collecting the lifetime achievement award.

Lifetime achievement? Bruce still has decades of achievement to achieve! He left the BBC for LWT in 1994 – a direct transfer this time, no flop theatre production like in 1978. Bruce said, "It seems as though variety is a dirty word amongst the light entertainment people." But even when ITV caved in and granted a series, no-one watched the variety shows. Viewers had moved on, and Bruce hadn't.

Bruce left a gap on the BBC: he had been in the running to host the lottery draws. And they needed a new host for Generation Game, the producers eventually had a shortlist of Jim Davidson and Rolf Harris.

What did Bruce do on ITV? Another series of Play Your Cards Right. All that talent, all that experience, and all we've got to show for it is a bunch of catchphrases. Some of them new. "What do pounds make? Rich people!"

The Price is Right

Bruce's Price is Right

And then he turned up on The Price is Right, a high-octane game against the new Monday episode of The Eastenders.

Do we have to explain The Price is Right? Sheesh. Here's a nice item. How expensive is it? Closest to the actual price, without going over, wins. Repeat, with some slight variations, for half an hour.

It had everything we'd expect from The Price is Right. A whooping audience. Glamorous models, and some decent prizes. Some very decent prizes: the budget for the show ran to about £45,000 per episode. Expensive, but everything else ITV had thrown against The Eastenders had failed.

By this late date, the sport of golf had been invented, and Bruce took up the challenge with gusto. He made many appearances on the pro-celebrity circuit, and even took his hobby to work. Here, he plays the "Hole in One" game, demonstrating the lie of the artificial turf to "help" the player. Naah, it's so Bruce can play golf on national television.

The Price is Right always goes at speed, if it's not going quickly they're doing something wrong. There's very little time for Bruce to banter with the players. He's good at that, he's had a lot of practice, and can squeeze a lot of laughs out of a quick conversation, a raised eyebrow or a knowing look.

What we didn't get – at least not on our sample editions – was a good feel for the Showcase. Three items – a hot tub, a cruise, and a brand new car – described in one minute flat. Difficult to play along, easy to be wowed by the expense.

The Price is Right

As the 90s played out, Bruce began to fade into the background. Cards and Price continued, but weren't must-see television. He recorded lots of episodes in a few weeks, had most of the year free to spend with his family and his golf clubs, and was on screen more often than not. Television adverts for Courts Furnishers worked for the firm, but were toe-curlingly naff. Arguments over scheduling soured Bruce's final years with LWT, which he left in 2001. A graceful retirement looked likely, write his autobiography, pop up on chat shows, maybe enter the nostalgia circuit.

Have I Got Bruce for You

And then came Have I Got News for You. The topical panel game was still floundering after Angus Deayton's exit. Bruce was the guest host for the series finale in June 2003, and played the crowd like a seasoned professional. This isn't surprising, Bruce has more experience than Merton, Hislop, Marcus Brigstocke, and Natasha Kaplinsky combined.

There was satire – the occupying forces in Iraq had distributed packs of playing cards, containing the faces of their opponents. Bruce used this as an excuse to Play Your Iraqi Cards Right. There was merriment – a conveyor belt of objects to remember and link. And there was, at the heart, a standard episode of Have I Got News for You. Once again, Bruce had taken the regular format and added a little stardust.

Have I Got News for You The memorable moment from Bruce's turn.

Bruce's turn had lasting effects on Have I Got News for You. Plans to have a new permanent host were put on ice, and the host search went beyond people who would turn up and be on the panel. This episode also let to the extended repeat, Have I Got a Bit More News for You, because 30 minutes of Bruce wasn't enough.

Outside the Hat Trick walls, Bruce had reminded television execs of just how good he was with an audience. He was signed up for early evening quiz Didn't They Do Well!, reheating old questions. We reviewed it in January 2004, and concluded "a technological marvel, a passable archive clip show, and shows a good game."

Strictly Come Dancing Bruce with co-host Tess Daly.

BBC1 controller Lorraine Heggessey made many efforts to bring more variety to Saturday night television. One effort was variety to its core, pro-celebrity ballroom dancing. Bruce hosted Strictly Come Dancing.

At first, his expectations were low. "All the celebrities would come on, not be able to dance. It'd be like Generation Game." Except they took it seriously, trained hard, and the laugh-a-minute show turned into serious competition. Bruce was able to go with the flow, he'd take the contest seriously and take the mickey out of everyone in the studio.

We reviewed sample episodes in 2005 and 2011. Pleasant, undemanding, so nice that criticism just slides off, and it's neither strict nor ballroom.

By the time he left Strictly in 2013, Bruce was part of the gang. His wits may not be quite so razor-sharp, his jokes perhaps lapsed into catchphrase. But that fitted Strictly well, the format has always carried a faint nostalgic miasma. Still does, at heart it could fit into the schedules of 1956.

Bruce was appointed OBE in 1998, CBE in 2006, and received a knighthood in 2012.

Bruce's magic

All of this leaves one question: what, exactly, does Bruce do. We call in a far greater writer. In 1977, Alan Coren said,

[Bruce Forsyth] is raw undoctored personality: it does not elaborate, it does not compromise, it does not descend to the cyclomate charm which so many of Bruce's simulcra use to wheedle their way into motherly hearts. It is tough, self-deriding, often audience-deriding, personality which knows, very professionally and very precisely, the exact limits to its own wickedness, brilliantly recognises the threat of archness which lies dangerously on its perimeter, and maintains a constant skilful balance between the arranged act and the impromptu which welds a contract between performer and audience.

Bruce is snappy, quick-witted, a little irritable, but never so irritable as to be irritating. He doesn't cause offence, he doesn't hold back, and he hits his marks every time. When Bruce is on stage, eyes will be drawn to him. Often, he will invite you to look at some other star – be it Beryl Reid, Adam Faith, Bette Midler, Paul and Suzanne, Natasha Kaplinsky. But our attention will always come back to Bruce Forsyth.

"I'll still be singing and dancing when I'm 100." Not long to wait.


{1} We're struck by how Big Night was scrapped when Noel Edmonds' Late Late Breakfast Show was reprieved. The first series in 1982 went down a blind alley: it went away for the summer and came back with better ideas, and Mike Smith. The BBC shows patience to a big star with a struggling format; ITV threw in the towel. Back to article

{2} In the 1980s, IBA restrictions meant the Play Your Cards Right end game was played for points, which were converted into prizes. The 1990s edition was played for cold hard cash. The chairman's script on I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue still uses the "points mean prizes" gag. Back to article

{3} Players on Hot Streak were also not allowed to "pantomime". They could not ask the host where to find the best years of his career. Back to article

{4} This Takeover Bid shopping bag was not used outside the studio. It's not as gratuitous as the My Kitchen Rules branding. Back to article

{5} Punch. Back to article

This Week and Next

The European Quiz Championship took place last weekend. The winner was Olav Bjortmont, setter for The Chase and The Times. Eggheads took the other two medals, Kevin Ashman was second and Pat Gibson third.

Edinburgh and Open met on University Challenge. The match was drawn, 185-185.

Under the ludicrous rules of University Challenge, draws are not permitted to stand. Under the inconsistent rules of this contest, defeat in this particular round eliminates a team from the contest entirely. There's no return for high-scoring losers as we saw in the prior round, and there's no automatic return for all losers as we'll see in the next round. This structure stinks to high heaven.

Open exit the tournament without losing a match. We may not be able to say that about the team announced as "champions" in April.

We regret that Only Connect has had the same tournament format inflicted upon it. Unlike that other show, OC is honest that the show has production blocks, and begins in the "A" half – we saw these teams in July and August.

Cosmopolitans and Tubers won the first two editions, with high scores. Tubers had the big score in the first round, spotting capitals of "Guinea" countries for three points. Cosmopolitans weren't out of it, scoring two on Celebrity Mugshots and the original names of world leaders.

Sequences brought in the first tricksy question of the series, the strings of a string section. Arrange instruments along the rows, and each string vertically in the column. A harsh but fair adjudication on a question about the "social class" scale – class D isn't fourth, not when there's C1 and C2 to get through. Cosmopolitans got lucky on a sequence of languages – it's not tongues going up the Baltic, but members of the Finnish family.

Both teams were good on the walls, and went into Missing Vowels tied at 15-15. After three sets of questions, they were tied at 21-21. Cosmopolitans began their answer before time expired, which means the player allowed to complete it. And, because it's a right answer, it wins the game by 22-21.

After last week's low-scoring zeebfest, Doosras and Cruciverbalists gave a more entertaining Hive Minds. How entertaining? 10-9 after the first four questions, three of the passing hives solved in quick order. Even Fiona got in on the fun, cracking a few jokes.

Cruciverbalists achieved the perfect Superhive, re-checking their work on Shakespeare title last words. Doosras only scored two on Prime Ministers – their technique for this round has been a handicap all series. Cruciverbalists extended their lead to 41-31 – but how many literary otters or famous bands from Hull are there?

Mastermind got shoved to 10.30, so that the BBC could show sexist violence before the watershed. It's a distressing reversal of history: Mastermind took its early-evening position in 1973 when Casanova '73 proved too racy for Mrs. Mary Whitewash.

Alan Morgan won this week's heat. He scored a perfect round on the films of David Pincher, and a solid general knowledge took him to 26 (1 pass). Kevin Baker was second on 24 points, he took Ginger McCain and Red Rum. Lena Gazey (23 points) had a strong general knowledge round, and John Clatworthy (20) a strong specialist round. In another week, either could advance.

The Great British Bake Off

BARB ratings in the week to 30 October.

  1. 15.9m. Fifteen point nine million viewers. That's how many saw the final of The Great British Bake Off. It's the biggest audience for any show since 2012, the highest for any non-sport show since Matt Cardle won The X Factor in 2010, and the highest for a pre-recorded show since A Matter of Loaf and Death premièred at Christmas 2008.
  2. Strictly Come Dancing had 11.2m viewers, and The X Factor recorded 6.7m. Six years ago it was as big as Bake Off. The next series of Bake Off hopes to be as big as X Factor is these days.
  3. On BBC1, HIGNFY recorded 4.95m, Pointless Celebrities 4.85m, Bake Off Class of 2015 had 4.25m, and Who Dares Wins 4.2m. The Chase did well on ITV, 3.15m.
  4. On BBC2, Bake Off Extra Slice finished with 2.9m viewers. Great British Menu had 2.4m, and Strictly on Two took 2.15m. Eggheads seems to have picked up with its new panel, 1.45m viewers this week. There were no Quizzy Monday shows.
  5. A great week for Celebrity Juice, 1.94m is the best in a few years. A League of Their Own brought in 650,000, and Xtra Factor had 555,000. Landscape Artist of the Year on Artsworld has 280,000 viewers, and Millionaire repeats on Challenge scored 230,000. We have no scores for UKTV's Dave or W channels.

Mid-November means the start of I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here! (ITV and UTV Ireland, from Sun). Tenable comes to ITV daytime. I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue (R4, Mon) is back with more ancient jokes. UK's Strongest Man arrives (C5, Thu), and it's Children in Need week.

Photo credits: Indigo Television, LWT, Reg Grundy Productions, BBC, YTV, Hat Trick, KYTV, Love Productions

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