A day with the legend that was Bruce Forsyth, and other strange connection I would have with him
BLOG NO.30 – IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO READ PART 8 OF THE CLOSE ENCOUNTERS FIRST, CLICK HERE
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If you haven’t read any of these, I always start with a confession: I thought I would do these Close Encounter blogs purely because I knew they would get more people coming to my blog site and, hopefully, listening to my folk music too. Well, I was right on the first count, but, judging by my site and SoundCloud statistics, I don’t think it’s getting many people to have a listen to my musical attempts. Hardly surprising, really, as most of those wanting to read these – include either current or budding puppeteers – are not that interested in folk-type music that is primarily about the history of a specific region of England. Just so you know, I have blogged about the other kinds of music I’ve done – see THIS one for example – and I will be doing more in the future. (I’ve added a couple of songs to the right-hand sidebar.) There, now I’ve done my confessional, on with the blog….
In my 40-odd years as an actor, puppeteer and movement choreographer in theatre, television and film I was fortunate and honoured enough to meet and work with some music legends – both human and places – from Elton John to Capital Record Studios in LA. It’s only recently that I realised music has been with me my whole adult working life, in one form or another, and I thought I’d share these ‘close encounters’ with you. So here is Part 9 of those encounters….
This Close Encounter, like the last one, is one I had completely forgotten about, and it should, like the last one, have been a much earlier post. Never mind, here it is now. Considering Sir Bruce Forsyth – known affectionately as Brucie – passed away earlier this year, I really wanted to related this story, as well as other surprising connection Brucie and I had. I’ll get to those in a moment.
The year is 1976, and I am 19 years old, living in Putney, southwest London. At the time, my then girlfriend and I – whom I’d met doing pantomime with at The Grand Theatre, Swansea, South Wales – were with the same London agent, and that agent happened to supply actors (male and female) to the then hugely popular BBC game show, The Generation Game, hosted at the time by the legendary Brace Forsyth, to rehearse the show and test out the game. I’ll get to that in due course.
Brucie had, in recent years, become synonymous with another BBC show, Strictly Come Dancing, and whilst many of his audience knew he could sing and dance, they were probably unaware of his incredible entertainment career; unaware that is, unless, like me, they saw the BBC tribute to him after his death at the age of 89. I was unaware, for example, of the musicals he’d appeared in, both in the West End and on Broadway.
I had grown up with Brucie on my tele’, and loved watching him in shows like Sunday Night At The London Palladium, which he hosted for quite some time. Here we’d see him sing, dance and make us laugh, and he could give guest performers, like the amazing Sammy Davis Jr. a run for their money. He was a showman in the truest sense of the word. Not only this, but he was a fine pianist, as you’ll see in the clip below.
Before we get to the Close Encounter, I’d like to relate a connection that Brucie and I would come to have: The Muppets. It was testament to his talents that he was invited to appear on The Muppet Show in January, 1977 (December 1976 in the US); a show that was recorded at ATV Elstree (now BBC Elstree of Eastenders fame), just outside of North London; across the road from the famous Elstree Film Studios. It would be the place where I’d have my first audition with the Muppets in 1982; although, in this instance, it would be for their film, The Dark Crystal. In the clip you’ll see, Brucie plays piano as he sings to/with Miss Piggy. She’s a pig I would come to know well, first through her first* performer, Frank Oz, and then later as I assisted her second puppeteer, Eric Jacobson on the last movie, Muppets Most Wanted. She’s SO demanding!
*Some puppeteers will know that Frank wasn’t her first performer, but Richard Hunt, who puppeteered her briefly.
So, to get back to the Close Encounter: as I said, my then girlfriend (an actress called Elaine Gibbs) and I were asked by our agent if we’d like to do The Generation Game. I don’t think we quite knew what he meant, after all, we weren’t mother and son, even if she was a bit older than me! Of course, that’s not what he meant at all. He meant act as if we were mother and son for the rehearsals, along with a six other actors doing the same generational kind of thing, making four couples in all, as the recorded show that night would go on to have. Our response was, of course, “Well hell yeah!” We grew up watching this show. I think it was enshrined in British law that you had to watch it every Saturday night. (Even if it was based on a Dutch show called Één van de acht (“One of the Eight”) It was HUGE! So off we went to pretend to be contestants at the iconic BBC Shepherd’s Bush Empire Theatre; a theatre that has seen many legends.
It just so happened to also be the episode that celebrated the birth of Bruce Forsyth and his second wife, Anthea Redfern‘s daughter, Charlotte, which affected something I did during rehearsals. One of the games we had to do was to decorate a piece of pottery with coloured glaze, after being shown how to do so by an expert, as was always the theme of one of the games of the show. I decided to paint baby booties around the top of this pot in blue gaze. Brucie asked what they were? and when I told him, thought it extremely funny…or pretended to for the rehearsal. Whether it was because of this or just that I happened to be chosen, I ended up being the finalist, and was put in front of the infamous conveyor belt, where you had to memorise as many of the objects as possible as they past in front of you in order to win them. Not that I would win them, no matter how many I remembered. For those who don’t know the show, here’s a (very dated!) clip from 1973 of some of the mayhem that usually ensued during the show, as well as that conveyor belt.
Billy Elliot: this may seem a strange connection, but bear with me. In the BBC 80th birthday tribute to Sir Brucie in 2008 (shown below) he got to dance with one of the current Billy Elliots from the West End musical of the same name. The connection comes from both the character of Billy Elliot, and where the film was set. The story, as most of you will know, is about the son of a coal miner during the 1984/85 miner’s strike, set in the Northeast of England. It’s not mentioned where exactly it was set in the movie, but it was filmed in Easington on the County Durham coast, which then had a colliery. (I was from northwest Durham.) Billy takes to ballet rather than boxing, much to the dismay of his macho miner father, and his brother, and the film shows both his personal struggle and that of the miner’s and their families during that awful strike.
I actually found it very hard to watch the movie. Whilst there are many differences between the character of Billy and my youthful self, and the mining town he grows up in, there were things about it that rang true to my youth, which would be ten years previous to when the film was set. I had a coal ming father – although he passed away when I was six – and grew up in a coal mining town, although there wasn’t much mining left by the time I was a teenager, and, initially, I wanted to be a dancer too, as well as an actor. I loved watching any dance on television, but especially contemporary. It was bad enough wanting to be an actor in a testosterone-filled working class community, so I kept the dancing dreams quiet; but I would, when alone, dance when outside, just like Billy. I soon realised that I wasn’t committed enough to be a contemporary dancer, so I’d stick to acting, but still got to dance when I started touring in musicals or performing in pantomimes. When I moved into physical theatre, doing mime, mask and puppetry, I also started to take contemporary dance lessons. However, it wasn’t long before I realised that I wasn’t fit enough either! (It’s interesting that every girlfriend of mine, before the lady I married, was a dancer.)
There is another strange connection I have with Billy Elliot, and it’s one I related in the previous Close Encounters blog, and that is to Dame Julie Walter, who played the ballet teacher in the film, and whom I got to know whilst working at the Mermaid Theatre in London in 1975. Anyway, getting back to Sir Brucie and Billy Elliot, here’s a clip from that BBC special.
My Close Encounter with Sir Brucie was the most amazing, fun-filled day, and one I will never forget…even though I nearly did. Brucie was a UK legend and gave so much joy to his audiences, almost right up until his death, just a few months ago. Thank you Sir Brucie. May you always be remembered.
If you think these stories are interesting, they will be nothing compared to those the puppeteers from The Muppets or Sesame Street could tell. They’ve worked with more musical legends than I’ve had hot dinners. Having said that, I do have more to come, and Part 10 of the Close Encounter Of The Music Legend Kind will be about singing with the legends that are Kermit and Miss Piggy on the Muppet Beach Party album, and being involved in recording the sitcom Dinosaurs‘ BIG SONGS album at Capitol Records in Los Angeles.
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Until next time,